Is this the tipping point on workloads?


23 September 2020

Teachers, support staff and principals were already finding it impossible to complete their work in paid hours, then COVID-19 happened.

Before the pandemic, full-time teachers were working a weekly average of 48 hours and part-time teachers, 33 hours, according to the AEU’s annual State of our Schools survey of educators across Australia. Two-thirds say that their working hours have increased in the last year.

Full-time support staff work an average of 45 hours per week and those on fixed-term contracts work 47 hours per week. Just over 40 per cent say their workloads have increased in the last year.

COVID-19 added an extra 11.8 hours per week on average to 69 per cent of teachers during April and May 2020, the survey found.

Educators in remote schools, early career teachers, and those working in under-resourced schools report far higher hours of work – some are working up to 55 hours per week.

Most say they spend too much time on administration; preparing for and administering standardised tests; and data entry for performance accountability compliance, which cuts their time in the classroom.

The consequences of these excessive workloads are serious for educators, students and school systems. Stress levels increase, jeopardising educators’ physical and mental wellbeing and there is little time for any professional development activities. Excessive workloads threaten the quality of education and the attractiveness of the profession to new recruits.

Funding to ease pressure

The 2020 AEU federal conference recognised the workload issue. Its conference statement noted that employers were “exploiting the professional commitment of teachers and leaders to their students to impose unsustainable and unhealthy working regimes on their employees”.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says restoring proper levels of funding to schools is one obvious fix. Proper funding would pay for more teachers and support staff and allow smaller class sizes.

“Government funding cuts often undermine the very structures that were put in place to provide critical support for teachers’ work, such as the specialist curriculum support networks, the behaviour management support units and the disability support networks,” says Haythorpe.

She says one of the union’s most important tasks is to use industrial bargaining to address the significant health and wellbeing issues of excessive workloads.

AEU Victoria paved the way for positive change in 2017, reaching a deal with the state government that acknowledged the overwhelming workload for educators in a new schools agreement and included measures to address it, such as four non-teaching professional practice days per year for teachers to focus on work related to teaching including planning, preparation and assessment.

In an attempt to keep the focus on what really counts, the Victorian agreement mandates that 30 hours of a teacher’s working week is spent on activities directly related to teaching and learning, leaving the remaining eight hours for other school activities such as lunch, yard duty and meetings.

Principals’ massive workloads were also recognised through changes aimed at reducing paperwork, emails and meetings, and increasing support.

The agreement’s focus on workload was significant and it has made a difference, but its implementation has not always been smooth, says AEU Victoria branch president Meredith Peace.

“There’s just so much work to do. People are still frustrated by the number of meetings they go to. They’re still frustrated by the fact that they don’t feel like they’ve got enough control over their time when they’re at work.

“It really does highlight that we actually need more people in our schools doing that work,” Peace says.

As the Victorian branch begins work on the next schools agreement, the gains made and lessons learned from the 2017 agreement will be valuable building blocks to achieving further improvements in educators’ workloads.

Extra pressures of covid-19

The teaching conditions under COVID-19 added another stressful layer to Beck Humphreys usual excessive workload.

“It was insane,” says Humphreys, a senior teacher at Barcaldine Prep-12 State School in Queensland.

Classes moved online in Queensland and the state government provided curriculum materials for Prep to Year 10. Content for Years 11 and 12 was managed by individual teachers.

Teachers were expected to be available at school during class times to chat online to students. For Humphreys, who teaches five different subjects, the workload became “hectic”.

There was online chat to the students, emails from students and their parents, and the written feedback on work that might otherwise have just been a quick chat in class.

“You have minimum 18 kids in a class, multiply that by five classes, then add parents. I was keeping logs of who I was emailing every day just so I could keep track,” she says.

The students were also stressed about the disruption and uncertainty, says Humphreys, particularly the Year 12s who were worried about how it might affect their final year.

Then the school goat, Gloria, which had just given birth to triplets, became ill. “So, in the middle of it all we had triplets to feed and I’m checking a sick goat three times a day.”

Now that her school is back to normal scheduling, Humphreys is celebrating a small workload win.

“Report cards have been pushed back. "We’re getting all of our assessments in, but it’s highly modified this term for all but senior students. Only maths, science and English are being reported on at our school.”

That minor victory aside, the more than 50 hours of work she puts in each week largely comes down to paperwork and the preparation she needs to complete because she is teaching out of her subject areas.

As an English/history teacher, this year Humphreys is teaching senior classes in biology, agricultural practices, visual art and English, as well as a Year 9 science class.

“It requires so much study time so that you’re abreast of the curriculum materials. I find myself working weekends just to get in front. I don’t want to let the students down,” she says.

Humphreys is aiming to find solutions to excessive workloads as part of her role on a new Workload Advisory Council. The formation of the council was negotiated by the Queensland Teachers Union as part of the 2019 enterprise bargaining agreement to find ways to reduce workloads.

Balancing the admin

For Jacki Knizek, a Year 6 teacher at Bakewell Primary in Palmerston, NT, a solution of sorts is to be clear about what she can manage.

“I’ve learnt to say, I can’t make that deadline, this is when I can get it done,” Knizek says.

Knizek believes the administration work is often valuable to the school or students, but she says it can be overwhelming, particularly for new educators.

“I’m working with a new teacher and he’s at school into the evening and working on weekends to try to manage his workload," she says. "It’s a real struggle for him.”

The percentage of Australian teachers who report they have too much administrative work and experience a lot of stress is above the OECD average, according to former Productivity Commission economist and education researcher Trevor Cobbold.

Cobbold, who is convenor of Save Our Schools, says results from the recent OECD’s Teaching And Learning International Survey report show that more than half of all secondary school teachers in Australia say they have too much administrative work, which takes away time for preparing for classes and is a major source of stress.

“They are significant factors behind teachers leaving the profession,” Cobbold says.

Before the pandemic…

  • Full-time teachers were working a weekly average of 48 hours
  • Part-time teachers were working a weekly average of 33 hours
  • Two thirds say their working hours have increased in the last year

And now…

  • COVID-19 added an extra 11.8 hours per week on average to 69% of teachers during April and May 2020

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Spring 2020