Answering teachers’ cry for help - Grattan Institute

Teachers are ringing the alarm about their workloads. Governments need to start listening. Bold reforms are needed to set up the profession for success.

Having endured lengthy periods of remote schooling due to COVID-19, most parents would agree that great teaching is hard work. It’s not just the limitless patience required to cajole youngsters to pay attention and keep their hands to themselves. The hardest part is often finding the right words and activities to shepherd a child from unfamiliarity – or confusion – to mastery of a technical skill or concept.

Teaching has always been demanding, but our expectations of schools have grown significantly in recent decades.

Teachers today are expected to assess student learning frequently, monitor progress closely and adapt their practice appropriately, stay abreast of the research evidence, develop children’s social and academic competencies, and ensure their teaching is inclusive of the range of student abilities.

And that’s just part of the job.

Add in hours of yard duty and extracurricular activities each week, a good dose of paperwork, regular parent communication and student welfare checks, administrative meetings, and the frequent introduction of new programs to tackle emerging social issues from financial literacy and cyber-bullying to informed consent, and the average teacher’s schedule is bulging.

This is a problem for students, not just teachers.

We are pulling teachers in so many different directions that many find it hard to find the time to teach the core curriculum well.

A new Grattan Institute survey of 5442 teachers and school leaders across Australia found 92 per cent say they “always” or “frequently” don’t have enough time to prepare for effective teaching.

Our survey shows that numerous barriers get in their way. About 86 per cent of teachers thought the workload for “effective” teaching was too high. About 68 per cent said they lacked enough protected planning time. Three-quarters said there was insufficient support for struggling students with complex needs, and the same again pointed to frequent new initiatives getting in the way of classroom preparation. Just as worrying, school principals reported feeling largely powerless to make a difference.

The good news is that there are changes that could make it easier for teachers to focus on great teaching. Our research identifies three key directions for reform.

First, we must let teachers focus on teaching. The non-teaching workforce in schools has grown significantly. We need to better deploy this workforce in ways that free up teachers to focus on teaching. One concrete option is to use more non-teaching staff to supervise extracurricular activities, such as excursions, clubs and special events, as well as yard duty. When we tested this option with teachers, almost 70 per cent were supportive, estimating it could save them two hours a week, which they could spend on better classroom preparation.

Second, we must help teachers work smarter by reducing unnecessary tasks. Teachers spend about a third of their working hours on teaching-related activities outside the classroom, such as lesson preparation and marking. Not all this time is productive. Just over half of teachers in our survey reported spending too much time “reinventing the wheel” when it came to lesson preparation. On average, teachers estimated they could save three hours a week if they had pre-prepared, high-quality curriculum resources, so they didn’t need to make their own.

Third, we need to reconsider the fundamental ways that teachers’ work is organised. Well over half of teachers and school leaders in our survey supported small increases in class sizes (an extra three children), if the costs saved were invested in two hours of additional planning time each week. And 58 per cent of teachers thought scheduling two or three more planning days in term breaks would reduce workloads in term time. Principals need more flexibility to apply these strategies in their schools.

One thing we don’t recommend is locking in a universal reduction in teachers’ face-to-face teaching hours through industrial agreements. This would be very expensive, and it doesn’t make much sense when more cost-effective options are available. Given limited state government budgets, such a reduction could also make it harder to fund other reforms, such as increasing teacher pay at the top end to keep it competitive.

It is not enough for governments to declare bold aspirations for schooling and then expect over-stretched teachers to magically deliver. If we want our children to succeed at school, we need to support our teachers to succeed in their jobs.

We recommend that state and territory governments, along with the Commonwealth, systematically test these three directions for reform, along with any other promising approaches. A $60 million investment across governments – less than 0.1 per cent of Australia’s annual recurrent schools funding – would be enough to make a strong start and signal Australia’s genuine commitment to making more time for better teaching.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economics policy.

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