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Teachers under pressure: working harder, but with less control over how they do their jobs

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 January 2021

Francis Green.

It must be exhilarating, if challenging, to set out for the first time on a teaching career in Britain’s schools. But, from eye-witness reports in recent years, for some new recruits the strains are not long arriving. Now, as a new term gets underway, the chaos surrounding the pandemic can only be adding to the pressures that teachers have laboured under for a long time.

The stats suggest that dissatisfaction is not confined to an unhappy few. In England, among the newly qualified teachers in 2014, some 14 percent had left after a year; after five years, a third had gone. It seems quite a waste. Teacher retention has been declining for some while, and had fallen yet again in 2019 — despite attempts to stem the tide.

What is it about the job of teaching nowadays that lies behind this trend?

Two answers are commonly given to this question: workload and pay. Workload is typically interpreted in terms of working hours, and one can point to the long hours worked during term-time, compared to other professions and compared to teachers in other countries. However, the simple fact of long work hours does not explain why retention has become an increasingly urgent problem, since teachers’ term-time working hours have been relatively high for decades and have not been noticeably increasing. Similarly, teachers’ pay has not notably fallen in the long term behind that of many alternative jobs in the professions.

My new paper suggests a different possible explanation. Put briefly, two particular aspects of teachers’ job quality seem to be deteriorating: “work intensity” and “task discretion”.

Work intensity means the “rate of physical and/or mental input to work tasks performed during the working day”. Intensification of work happens when, for example, more tasks have to be done in the same time (those tea breaks and pauses are squeezed) or when the tasks themselves become more intensive, or when they are made to take longer because of frequent interruptions. I used data from the Skills and Employment Surveys, a nationally representative survey series which naturally includes many teachers, carried out every five years or so. Because high work intensity is manifested in a variety of ways, it is usually best to use multiple measures.

The diagram below presents one of the measures used: the percent of teachers who “strongly agree” that their job requires them to work very hard. It shows a striking increase in the work intensity of teachers over the years, and especially between 2012 and 2017, a period during which spending per pupil was declining. By 2017, the work intensity of teachers had become higher than any other major occupation in Britain. Indeed, some 90 percent of teachers report that their job requires them to work very hard, as compared with just 44 percent for all other workers combined.

Another measure is the percent of jobs where the work involves ‘working at very high speed’ at least three quarters of the time: this proportion increased from 16.1 percent of teachers in 1992 to 57.9 percent in 2017.

Task discretion means the extent to which employees have an influence over the tasks they do at work. I used an index which summarised how much influence teachers personally had over the tasks they do, how they did them, the pace at which they did them and the quality standards they worked to. As the diagram shows, while work intensity was increasing, the level of task discretion was declining. To illustrate what’s behind that downward slide, in 1992 some 73% of teachers reported that they had a great deal of influence over how they performed their tasks; by 2017, this proportion had come down to 36%. In short, teachers’ sense of control over their work seems to have diminished, and notably more than for other professionals.

Having both high work intensity and reduced control or influence over your work indicates high strain in a job, a classic source of stress. The two diagrams in tandem suggests that there are likely to be many more teachers in high strain jobs in 2017 than back in 1992.

According to the same data, other aspects of teachers’ job quality – such as ‘working time quality’ (including total hours worked), job security and pay did not show any major changes over the years, at anything like the rate that work intensity rose or task discretion fell.

My paper does not show why work intensity has risen, nor why task discretion has been falling, but we can speculate. One straightforward explanation sometimes given for work intensification in public sector jobs is especially salient for the recent decade: that a decline in funding means that teachers have more pupils to teach, along with more marking and associated work. An explanation for the decline in task discretion may lie in the increasing bureaucratic and formal requirements of accountability that teachers must nowadays demonstrate. Yet while these explanations are plausible, the full story will surely be more complex.

While the paper does not aim to prove the link to the problem of teacher retention, the declining discretion and sharply rising work intensity – while hours themselves have not changed much – should prompt a sharpened focus on what needs addressing in the management of teachers. It is these factors that have moulded a good part of the changes in well-being and job satisfaction since around 2006.

The enormous extra strains of teaching in the shadow of COVID-19 have come on top of the long-term trends. For pre-school teachers especially there is the additional health insecurity of working face to face during the latest lockdown, with no vaccine protection. Yet teaching remains a career choice with the potential for deep intrinsic rewards. Is it too much to hope that the recovery we look for in 2021 might be accompanied by a serious re-think of how teachers’ jobs should be designed, monitored and supported, so as to build on that promise?


Francis Green “British Teachers’ Declining Job Quality: Evidence from the Skills and Employment Survey”. Oxford Review of Education, online. Published 20 January 2021.

You can read the paper here.


One Response to “Teachers under pressure: working harder, but with less control over how they do their jobs”

  • 1
    Geraldine wrote on 20 January 2021:

    This is very timely and important research and fits in with the call for a more collaborative school culture outlined in my book It’s Our School, It’s Our Time. How is your research going to be used to change things for teachers? I’ll be interested to read any follow-ups you publish.

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