Irish teachers on the long hours and huge pressure of teaching in Britain

Irish teachers on the long hours and huge pressure of teaching in Britain

With hundreds of Irish teachers struggling to find work in Ireland and held in high regard in Britain, the transition between countries most might seem an easy and practical one for most. The reality, however, is different with many Irish teachers under pressure,  complaining of 60-hour working weeks and facing the possibility of being driven out of the profession they initially entered with such enthusiasm....

IT was all too tough for Lucy — much to her surprise. With nine years of teaching experience under her belt, she felt confident ahead of her move from Dublin to London last September.

The young teacher expected to face new challenges at the inner-city primary school where she had been offered a job.

But she thought she would be able to take it all in her stride. She also wanted the financial security that came with a full-time position. So she took up the offer.

Weeks later, Lucy entered an English classroom for the first time in an optimistic mood.

She didn’t expect the profession to be so demanding over here that she would have quit by Christmas.

Yet that is just what happened.

Today Lucy is doing supply work at a different school every day until her boyfriend finishes his university degree and they can return home to Ireland.

As she chats during a brief lunch break, she explains why she’s counting down the days.

“Even at the school I am in today I have been told that a lot of the teachers have left the profession because of the pressure,” she says, almost laughing in disbelief.

“This is not what teaching is. It just is not worth it.”

For Lucy, the biggest problem was the workload.

Whereas in Dublin she would be able to get into school at half eight and leave at half three, in London she had to get to her desk by half 7 and would have been lucky to leave before half six.

And while she occasionally had to take work home in Ireland, she says that was the norm when she taught full-time over here.

“It is just not worth it,” she repeats. “There are not enough hours in the day, so it is leaking into the weekend as well.”

Yet Lucy’s experience is not unique. In fact, a friend of hers who also came over to London in September, leaving behind a job as deputy head of an Irish primary school, had also quit by Christmas.

“The workload was so crazy that she didn’t see any of London until she left the job,” she joked.

Of the 15 Irish teachers interviewed by The Irish Post last week, all but two raised serious concerns about the workload they have to deal with.

Common among their comments were complaints of 60-hour working weeks and reports of colleagues leaving the profession in their droves.

Both are backed up by official statistics, with British Government figures showing an average working week of between 56 and 59 hours for teachers in England and Ofsted, the schools inspector, reporting that four-in-10 teachers leave within five years of getting their first job.

Thousands of teachers will walk out in strikes across England and Wales next month in protest at what unions describe as “excessive” workloads.

The concerns have been raised at a time when hundreds of Irish teachers are coming here every year due to a jobs shortage at home, joining thousands already working in British schools.

Those teachers with children told The Irish Post that the workload had robbed them of a normal family life.

“I have a toddler and I might see him for an hour a night if I am lucky,” says John, a secondary school teacher based in Newcastle with 11 years of experience working in England.

“I’m living for the weekend and the holidays as far as my family are concerned.”

With a deep sigh, he adds: “When I got into teaching I thought the last thing I wanted in the world was a nine-to-five job, but now the only thing I want is to be able to leave work at five o’clock and go home to my family.”

Meanwhile, those without children can’t imagine reconciling a family life with their day job.

“Hoping I will be able to go back to Ireland and teach there is what keeps me going I think,” says Fiona shortly after her final class of the day at a London primary school.

“In Ireland I know lots of mums who are full-time teachers, but I cannot imagine how you could do that here.”

Her colleague, Katie, who is also Irish, adds: “I do find it quite peculiar that in all the schools I have been in you just don’t see working mothers; they all seem to work part-time.

“It does not seem to be possible to have children and teach full time, which makes sense.”

After much contemplation, that is the position Anne-Marie has come to. She recently gave birth to her first child and is due to return to work soon when her maternity leave ends.

But she has decided to give up hope of extending her 12-year career.

“I’ll certainly have to go part-time, but to be honest I am contemplating quitting teaching altogether,” she explains.

“I only have one child and if I want to have another I do not see how I could do it because of the amount of work you have to do.

“I would be in school every morning from about seven and I would not be leaving until about six in the evening and then when you get home you would have a few hours’ work to do on top of that.”

Most of the other teachers speak of their workload as a source of huge stress before they even get onto the subject of family.

They paint a worrying picture of plummeting morale in schools, with teachers at breaking point by the seventh week of each half-term.

The NASUWT union warned of an industry “on the verge of a crisis” in December when a poll revealed that almost half the 501 teachers questioned had seriously considered quitting the profession in 2013.

Workload was the main barrier to their job satisfaction, selected by 79 per cent of respondents, while the vast majority (86 per cent) said their workload had increased in the last 12 months.

Meanwhile, the Government points out that teaching is more popular than ever, with a record number of “top graduates” now applying to become teachers.

But fears of a looming crisis were raised again last month when a survey by the ATL union revealed that more than a third of school and college staff have seen a rise in mental health issues among colleagues in the past two years.

More than half (55 per cent) claimed their job had a negative impact on their mental health and 66 per cent of the 900 people polled said work affects their sleep.

The stress of teaching today is made worse by a frustration at vast amounts of “meaningless” paperwork, according to Rob, who works at a secondary school in Liverpool.

“I have been teaching for four years and I have seen many teachers come in and go out,” he adds.

“I sometimes ask myself am I better off doing something else. I don’t find the teaching stressful, just the workload and the amount of silly time-consuming tasks you have to do to tick off the boxes.”

That has gotten worse in recent years, adds James, with the introduction of new Ofsted standards that require teachers to add ‘next step’ marking in books by writing sentences telling the student how they can further their learning.

“For me education has been over-complicated and the focus has switched from being an inspirational teacher to being a data-analyser,” he explains.

Most teachers agree with his claim that a significant portion of their workload is of little use to students.

According to a poll commissioned by the National Union of Teachers last December, some 63 per cent of teachers think at least a fifth of their workload does not directly benefit students.

“I would imagine that parents would rather I spent time with their children teaching them, sitting down beside them and going through work with them rather than spending hours writing things down on documents that their children will never see,” says Katie.

Yet there are dissenters. Kevin would have placed himself firmly among the minority saying that the long hours don’t stop him enjoying his job.

A second generation Irishman teaching PE at a London secondary school, he says his hours are just as long as everyone else’s, starting before eight and finishing between five and six.

“But I think that if you enjoy the job then you just get on with it even though those hours can cause stress,” he says.

In his experience, workload complaints have come mainly from older teachers unhappy about recent reforms to the curriculum, while younger educators like him find it easier to adapt to new measures.

And as far as the hours are concerned, he doesn’t think teaching is much different to other professions.

“If you work on a building site you have to get the job finished by the weekend and it is the same thing here,” he jokes.

“If you are working on a school you have to get your books marked by the end of the week.”

After a pause, he adds: “Sometimes I think people take for granted what they do. This is a good profession to be in. At least teaching is a stable job.”

Dáire, meanwhile, disputes the claims that teachers’ workloads are getting worse.

Like the current wave of teachers coming to Britain, he left home in 1992 when he could not find a job after graduating.

Drawing on more than two decades of experience, the Manchester-based deputy head says stress is a long-running complaint among educators.

“In terms of the hours it has always been long hours and that is just one of those things,” he adds.

“I do not think teachers worked fewer hours in 1992, but I do think the level of accountability has changed.”

That added accountability takes the form of initiatives like the ‘next step’ marking on which teachers are assessed by Ofsted.

And while some dismiss such measures as un-necessary box-ticking, Dáire claims it helps parents know they are getting the best from their child’s teachers.

But as Lucy’s lunch break comes to an end, she is unconvinced.

“I feel like teachers are respected in Ireland to use their professional opinion on how children are doing because you weren’t assessed on paperwork like you are here,” she says.

“Here it is like they don’t trust the teachers, so you have to do all this paperwork and it takes over from the teaching.

“It is actually making me lose confidence in my ability as a teacher because of the system here even though my classes got good results at home.”

She adds that she is lucky because she now has a job to go back to in Ireland.

But what would she say to someone in a less fortunate position, like the many hundreds of people in Ireland due to complete their teaching qualifications this month who will struggle to find work come September?

“I would say that if you have to come to Britain, give it a go, but know what is ahead,” she says.

“Do it for a year or two because if nothing else that will make you appreciate teaching in Ireland a lot more.”

(Names have been changed)