It’s nothing new to say that teachers are experiencing increased workload. But where does this increased workload come from?
In a recent article published in the Journal of Educational Change (which is free to access in Australia!), we explore the perceptions of the teaching profession about change to their workload over a five-year period and how they attributed the cause of this change.
Theories of change and education policy
According to sociologist and political scientist Hartmut Rosa, we currently live in an era of ‘social acceleration’, where there is often a perception that even the “rates of change themselves are changing”.
In our article, we combined this theory about how time is experienced with theories of governance in education, including ideas like ‘fast policy’ and ‘policy layering’.
‘Fast policy’ is the concept that, in a time of heightened global flows, policy ideas now move much more quickly, with, as Lewis and Hogan put it, a “need for highly visible political action … [overriding] the need for a comprehensive approach to reform”. Lewis and Hogan thereby identify a “new policy temporality … in which schooling reform is regularly demanded and ‘quick-fix’ solutions are putatively needed”. Yet as these changes are introduced, they can have unintended effects on workload. This is sometimes because they are ‘layered’ on top of existing policy, and previous changes, creating a cumulative effect.
To explore experiences of change from the perspective of teachers, including where such change was attributed to shifts in policy, we used data from a workload survey conducted with 18, 234 teachers via the NSW Teachers Federation in 2018 (you can read the full report from the survey here).
Our research questions for the article were:
1. How do teachers reflect on changes to their work over the period 2013–2017?
2. How do teachers reflect on the role of policy in relation to these changes?
Change to workload
Teachers were asked to report changes to their work over the five-year period from 2013 to 2017. Respondents reported increases in the following aspects of their work: complexity (95% reporting an increase); range of activities (85%); the collection, analysis and reporting of data (96%); and administrative tasks (97%).
In addition, four in ten felt support from the Department had decreased during the five-year period, and half felt it had not changed (although demands had grown).
Teachers described the perceived increase in demands particularly in terms of “paperwork”: “there is way too much paperwork”; “the amount of paperwork required is ridiculous”. “Admin” was often linked by respondents to accountability mechanisms, with “the greatest change” being “the amount and importance of … box-ticking style evaluation and oversight processes”.
Attribution of change to workload
Teachers attributed increases in workload to accountability, administrative and data work. Respondents described a view that policymakers “should stop changing things all the time. See how a change impacts before changing again”, and that authorities should “choose one or two new initiatives, rather than several, for schools to implement at any time and allow teachers to become proficient in these before bringing in further initiatives”.
A very large majority of teachers also reported that teaching and learning was hindered by such demands, including having to provide evidence of compliance with policy requirements (86%), and new administrative demands introduced by their employer (91%).
Just under one in six classroom teachers agreed that “the Department of Education values my work”. Nearly half (44 %) disagreed, and 40% selecting “neutral”.
The results of our research suggest a perception of increase in work demands alongside reduced support. Teacher respondents attributed these workload increases to state and federal policy and associated institutions. We argue that such reforms are understood by respondents as related to an increased rate of change within an “accelerated” and “accelerating” society, manifesting through multiple, sometimes constant and sometimes contradictory or conflicting policy “layers”.
Whether such increases as respondents report are ‘real’ or not, is not something we can claim. The data we have presented is, of course, self-reported. But either way, there is evidently a sense of discord and mistrust amongst the teaching profession. This disquiet will need to be addressed if reports of debilitating teacher shortages are going to be effectively reversed. To this end, we note, and applaud, recent efforts of policymakers to reduce teachers’ administrative burden with, for example, a national teacher workforce action plan and a plan to protect teachers’ ‘quality time’. However, these plans have themselves given rise to calls for an increased focus on retention, and not just attraction; and to protect teachers’ ‘core work’, such as lesson planning, from being outsourced under the guise of ‘admin’ reduction. As the school year resumes for 2023 and returning teachers confront their jobs anew, finding ways to effectively support the work that teachers want to do is likely to need ongoing attention.
Meghan Stacey is a lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education and is a former high school English and drama teacher. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey. Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions. Rachel Wilson is Professor, Social Impact, University of Technology Sydney Business School . She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100.