Sir Michael Wilshaw and the 3pm Myth

This week, for the first time since school started three weeks ago, I left work for an appointment at 4pm.  On my way past the school gym, I could see members of staff running the table tennis club.  I said goodnight to members of staff on their way to epilepsy and anaphylaxis training.  I had to send apologies to another training session that was entirely relevant to me as a Sixth Form tutor.  The truth is, I felt ridiculously guilty – like I was doing something wrong by leaving so early.

Waking up to a Twitter storm this morning about this very issue – the hours teachers work and how that relates to how effective they are – was a remarkable coincidence.  Sir Michael Wilshaw, in an interview with The Times, apparently stated that teachers who leave at 3pm should be paid less than those who work longer hours.  According to the BBC report, “inspectors would mark down schools which increased the pay of teachers who were ‘out the gate at 3 o’clock’”.  The reign of Sir Michael thus far has been peppered with controversy – this is a man who likes to make strong statements and to watch the reaction.  He is, as a dear Twitter friend put it, “the man who kicked the hornet’s nest”.  The hornets are agitated and yet again, despite perhaps noble intentions, Sir Michael has succeeded in further alienating the teaching workforce.

As much as I am tempted to launch into a fully-fledged tirade against such tomfoolery, I understand the need for the issues to be unpicked.  The “3pm” myth is a long-standing one; teachers apparently work from 9am to 3pm and have ridiculous amounts of holiday.  If people want to believe this myth, they will and no amount of hand-wringing on my part is going to change that fact.  I can only hope that if someone genuinely wants to know what the working life of a teacher is like, they will attempt to walk a mile in the shoes of a real teacher.  Another facet of the 3pm myth that is often overlooked is the idea that people who leave early are somehow less effective than those who don’t.  In the last ten years, I have been fortunate to work with highly-effective people.  I did not measure their effectiveness on the hours they worked.  I knew them as individuals, with children, or appointments, or outside interests and hobbies.  I also knew they were reliable, regardless of the time they left the school building.  I often admired those who could leave early – my own working habits meant that I was often inefficient and needed to learn to work smarter, not harder.  I have started to understand that concept now, ten years on.

The advice I give now to trainee teachers is to find the work pattern that suits them – I have seen trainees work themselves into the ground because they have felt the pressure to stay late, instead of going home, having a hot bath and a good dinner – and spending time with loved ones.  What is the point of me giving that advice when it seems that pay might be related to the presenteeism part of performance?

The article seems to suggest that Ofsted may punish schools that allow staff to maintain, in some way, shape or form, a work-life balance.  This seems ludicrous on many levels.  Not only does it counter the advice teachers are given to motivate children, it ignores the basics of human motivation.  Simply telling people to work harder and for longer does not mean that they will want to.  They won’t work longer hours, even if their pay is performance related because most teachers now recognise the adverse effects of long hours during the week and weekends truncated by marking and planning – most teachers know that there needs to be some respite somewhere.  The assumption that if you leave early – perhaps because you have childcare commitments, perhaps because you are a carer, perhaps because you know you work better in the evenings at home – it means that somehow you are not committed to addressing educational disadvantage, is fundamentally flawed.  The BBC article goes on to say that “Sir Michael also said any teacher who did not wish to act as a surrogate parent in poor areas to pupils who lacked support at home did not deserve a salary increase.”  If you take the childcare argument, Sir Michael suddenly seems to be creating a strange contradictory situation in which parents who are teachers in inner-city schools should leave their own children with another so that a) they can afford to look after their own children and b) so that they can act as a “surrogate” to someone else’s child.

I work in an inner-city academy.  The staff are more than aware of the need to act as “surrogate” parents – for the whole day, not just in those hours after school.  What delights me about my colleagues is the recognition that acting as surrogate parents does not create a long-term solution to a problem – community education, parental involvement and facilitating parents’ taking of responsibility as just as important.  Our staff room debates are illuminating and powerful.

To go back to the point, if, as some have suggested, the “3pm” comment is a ‘caricature’ and not to be taken literally, then I question the wisdom of the man who chooses to use it.  A good leader can look out across his workforce and influence change without grossly offending individuals, because he recognises that they are individuals.  A good leader recognises that working on intrinsic motivation is much more likely to lead to positive outcomes than dangling the carrot of extrinsic motivation.  I’m pretty certain it is an established fact that whipping your workforce to make them work faster and harder may work in the moment, but that it breeds resentment and the possibility of mass exodus.

Others have argued that Wilshaw’s latest comments are merely a reiteration of changes to the appraisal system.  Again, the foolishness of publicly associating performance with a ‘caricature’ of the early-leaving teacher means that the real point disappears.  Schools have to reward those who work hard and not reward those who don’t.  Unfortunately, generalising about whether this happens is entirely unhelpful to his case.  By saying “In last year’s report, we said that 40% of lessons overall were not good enough. And yet everyone is getting a pay rise. Hey! Something is wrong with the system”, he accuses senior leadership teams of wilfully ignoring poor performance.  Language is a powerful thing and one that every leader should use carefully.  Is “everyone” getting a pay rise?  As someone on the Upper Pay Scale, I know that I had to meet all of my performance management targets and then some, in order to get on to UPS1.  I will have to do the same this year.  I also know people who have been turned down for progression on to that pay scale, not because they left work too early, but because they didn’t meet their targets.  The targets were reset and they had to try again.

I do wonder whether the general perception of teachers in this country is informed largely by three main sources: Grange Hill, Teachers and Waterloo Road.  It would be a real shame, when the profession has moved on from elbow patches, donkeys in corridors and smoking behind the bikesheds whilst discussing a workplace romance, to see that undone by the constant barrage of generalisation about the way teachers perform.  Today’s comments only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes of teachers – and the media will report them as such – and this is something Sir Michael Wilshaw needs to be much more aware of.  Or even care more about.



  1. Paul

    All our of kleptocrats, the hateful Wilshaw in particular, have a deliberate strategy in place to poison public discourse against teachers. The key message they are drip feeding into the media is that all teachers are lazy, overpaid careerists who don’t care about kids or about education. Every anti-teacher story carries the same set of implications.

    How are teachers in tough schools supposed to enforce discipline and good behaviour when we are fighting against a national climate of disrespect and denigration towards teachers?

  2. blokefromstoke

    Thanks for this. Eminently sensible. In stark contrast to the cynical headline-grabbing crap from Mad Mike. The real Myth is that Ofsted is doing anything to promote standards in education. It’s a political tool for successive governments to look “rigorous and robust” (anyone else loathe those increasingly meaningless buzzwords – what happened to “fair”?) in slapping down those lazy overpaid leftie teachers and keep the tabloids happy. Any Government serious about promoting standards in education could start by dismantling Ofsted and returning Inspection duties to Local Education Authorities. As it is we have a bloated, out of control quango that sits on schools and teachers like a vast toxic toad. Phew! nothing like a good Saturday rant! Again, thanks for the piece.

  3. Joanie

    When I had a dog that needed to be walked I used to leave on the bell when I could at 3.35pm and afterwards used to do another 3 hours work. Sadly the dog is now dead but I stay at school to do the 3 hours work before I go home. Is he so ignorant that he fails to appreciate where teachers can fulfil any of their duties. Does the head of Ofsted think that work is only done in the classroom or does he think that we are glorified babysitters and no more!

  4. Bruno Reddy

    I’m sorry to see you’ve joined in with the SMW bashing.

    Inspectorates in any industry are there to improve standards and hold their constituents to account. They serve a much needed purpose in that sense. If they are any good at what they do, they will stand firm. They won’t rubber stamp the poor performers, which is, of course, what the poor performers are afraid of.

    Ofsted, rightly in my mind, is putting out a clear message that teaching standards must be high to drive learning outcomes. For too long, previous Ofsted Chief Inspectors haven’t had the courage to take hold of the opportunity their position offers. As a result, low expectations are deeply entrenched. Let’s be honest, we’ve both met or worked with colleagues who aren’t pulling their weight and would be ace in a different sector. SMW has hastily dubbed them “3pm-leavers” but it’s only because he has a very strong personal conviction that inadequacy is an injustice. This is one Chief Inspector who recognises the full extent of their opportunity and recognises the urgency of his work.

    Admittedly, SMW is not known for his turn of phrase but he *is* known for leading a school that has defied the statistics. In my mind, that means we should listen even if that means we need to read between the lines of what he is saying and not get taken in by misreporting, carried away by provocative sentiments or misled by those jumping on the bandwagon.

    For another view, have a read of Tom Bennett’s post:

    • thenewstateswoman

      Hi Bruno

      I’ve always taken the line that leaders ought to be more careful in their use of language as they can often detract from good ideas, as you can see from my previous posts. I am sorry that you have not seen some of the more balanced arguments in this piece, some of which have been commented on across the spectrum of beliefs. the fact is that there are many teachers nationwide who feel the standing of their profession being eroded. My article is not just about Wilshaw, it is about the way the media will choose to present controversial statements. If Sir Michael really cares about outcomes for students, he may want to consider the impact of his reported statements on retention rates.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. Bruno Reddy

    I completely agree with the sometimes sensational reporting and the carelessness of Sir Michael’s choice of phrase.

    There is a big piece of work to be done in raising the status of our profession and I suppose we need to take a multi-prong approach.

    From the bottom up, teachers need the chance to alter the misperceptions that blight our reputation. How do we do that? Perhaps by supporting one another to deliver amazing lessons and holding ourselves to account when we don’t.

    From the top down, Sir Michael is clearly sending a message that the bar of acceptable teaching is higher than some teachers think. Some teachers need to respond to that.

    From the side, entry routes into teaching could do more to ensure the most suitable candidates make it in – there are plenty of indicators that selection professionals can use.

    The media, as you say, have a responsbility here. In fact, they surely are the ones who could most swiftly elevate teaching to the level our Danish and Finnish counterparts enjoy. [We would need to unpick the economics of news reporting and our human thirst for bad news, first.]

    Lastly, unions would do well to carefully reflect on how their well-intentioned reactions in the press are interpreted and influence the general view of teachers.

    It’s a big job, as I say. 🙂

    Anyway, thank you for your measured response.

  6. Don't Feed The Pixies

    the argument to the contrary in the argument is that if someone is working all the hours there are – why are they not able to get their job done in the normal hours, ie are they milking it?

    Clearly, this is IT and not teaching – i don’t pretend to have much understanding of how much time lesson planning, marking etc takes up – but clearly it’s madness to try and make a comment about all teachers in general – some may well have better organization, some may work quicker than others and, much as it will pain you to read this – some will just not bother.

    Same as any other profession i guess, its just that Teachers are often the easiest group to blame for INSERT SOCIAL PROBLEM OF THE WEEK HERE

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