Education Column: Time to switch off and free teachers from the scourge of 24-hour email

One teacher found themselves in trouble when they failed to attend an 8am meeting - even though an email to announce it was only sent at around 11pm the previous night
One teacher found themselves in trouble when they failed to attend an 8am meeting - even though an email to announce it was only sent at around 11pm the previous night

In a Sheffield school this week, a young teacher responded to a parental concern with incredible efficiency. There had been a query about a piece of homework and a worried parent had emailed the teacher to ask something. The reply came pinging back within a couple of minutes. It was approaching 11.30pm.

This is remarkable service, some might say. It’s surely a way that technology is driving education forward in the 21st century. But let me assure you, there is nothing to be celebrated at all about this fast email response. If anything, it is an abhorrent reflection of the way our society has changed in the Broadband Age. That interaction between parent and teacher was not only unreasonable, it was unhealthy. And it has to stop.

I say we’re all moving backwards together, becoming more stressed and run-down

All schools give their teachers a personal email. Some schools publicise those emails as a way of increasing communication with parents, while others tend to keep the addresses closer to their chest. But inevitably, even the most protective of schools will have emails arriving from parents and pinging in the inbox of individual teachers.

As a teacher myself, I make my email address available to anyone. Email is a wonderful way to keep in touch with parents, share work and feedback not only on attainment but behaviour in class. As a result, I have developed a working relationship with some parents that is way more effective than the more traditional annual meeting at parents’ night and the odd letter home.

But there is a limit to how this interaction works. There has to be, for the sake of myself and my family.

I will not check emails when I get home from work. Why would I? If I send an email to a bank, sports centre or council department, I don’t expect to receive a reply at night when all the staff have turned off the lights and gone home. Why is it suddenly acceptable for people to expect replies from teachers when the school has closed?

One argument may be that we are all moving forward together and becoming more efficient, more professional. But I say we’re all moving backwards together, becoming more stressed and run-down. Much of the problem – yet again – is down to the odorous belt of middle managers infecting many schools like a virus, the type of people who were once effective teachers but then gained power via a promotion and somehow managed to forget what it’s actually like in the classroom.

I’ve been in schools where managers have frowned upon teachers who don’t use their smart phones to pick up work emails at night. One teacher I know landed in trouble when they failed to attend an 8am meeting – even though the email to announce the meeting was only sent around 11pm the previous night.

Fortunately, some union reps at Sheffield schools have instructed teachers not to check emails after 5pm and – crucially – not to send any messages. It is this refusal to send emails that is important because if you don’t send any emails out of hours there won’t be any to check.

But the emails still come, and usually from line managers. On evenings. On Saturdays. On Sundays. During Christmas, on strike days, on Bank Holidays. And this relentless sending of emails encourages a culture of checking the messages – just in case there’s one waiting.

It’s a pointless, self-destructive habit that encourages burn-out. Many teachers are in school from 7am and stay until after 5pm. There is no need to send messages to staff outside these hours. There is very rarely something so important that it cannot wait until the next time the school is open.

And so, just like we need to learn lessons from Finland (see my column last week), we also need to learn lessons from France. From New Year’s Day, French workers have the right to negotiate with managers about when to turn off appliances.

This is now written into French law and many huge companies – Volkswagen, Daimler and AXA among them – have already put policies in place to restrict email access. These are successful, multinational companies who are welcoming France’s new law to protect the wellbeing of their greatest resource – staff.

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