Teacher workload: the solution will be found by the profession, not the politicians

Broad statements are easy, but real change is hard – and that’s why teachers need to build on the good work already being done to tackle workload

Change doesn't come from politicians, but within

Here’s the thing. Taken as a whole, the education sector is very, very complicated. Literally millions of inputs and outputs, layered in millions of ways, tangled up, developed over hundreds of years.

If you’re a politician, it’s very easy to say that you want to reduce teacher workload, but when you look under teaching’s bonnet you’ll find a mess of moving parts. You can’t simply get hold of one of the big ones and force it to slow down.

Similarly, it’s very easy to say that you want inspection to focus more on the how and what of education and less on data and results, and in turn force a change in behaviours among heads, but when you look under the bonnet … You can guess where this is going.

This week, Tes has published a series of interrelated stories illustrating how hard it is to make real, cultural change happen in schools.

Most striking is the OECD’s five-yearly survey of the international teacher workforce. Nearly five years after Nicky Morgan launched her Workload Challenge, teachers’ working hours have in fact gone up. Teachers in England work, on average, a staggering and unsustainable 46.9 hours per week, the most in Western Europe.

Millions of pounds and millions of civil servant-hours have been spent since Morgan’s much-trumpeted initiative was launched – but to nil.

Writing for Tes this week, Morgan’s successor Damian Hinds admits that this is not acceptable. To be fair, Hinds’ much-lauded recruitment and retention strategy, published earlier this year, attempts to get in among the nuts and bolts of the workload problem, but it will be years before we see results, if we ever do, and it will be near impossible to prove causality.

It is, at least in part, the workload problem – together with deep-seated concerns about teaching to the test – that led Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman towards her reformed inspection framework, to be deployed in September. Also writing for Tes this week, Spielman outlines the thinking behind these reforms. She wants schools to think hard about curriculum, about the hows and whys and whens of what they teach, not the endless data-chasing that narrows options for students, takes the joy out of schooling and pushes up workload for teachers.

To be clear, this is a good idea. But, as I have written on countless occasions, the proof will be in the pudding.

Already there are signs that the reforms are driving behaviours opposite of those desired by Spielman. Tes columnist Michael Tidd wrote on Monday about the proliferation of “curriculum intent statements” that promise to satisfy inspectors. These, Tidd argues correctly, represent “depressing box-ticking exercises”.

Put simply, it’s not impossible to bring about cultural change in schools from on high. But it’s very hard.

In truth, profound change will only happen when the sector leads from within. Last week, I was lucky enough to chair a debate about curriculum featuring educationalists from across the traditionalist-progressive divide. The panellists – Liz Robinson, Peter Hyman, Luke Sparkes and John Blake – set out their conflicting visions for curriculum, and they were brilliant: intellectual, thoughtful, committed, articulate.

It was the kind of stuff that would make Hinds and Spielman weep tears of joy. But they were all examples of the high-quality reform coming from within schools, from within teaching, not forced from above.

You want to achieve powerful and profound change in schools (and, in so doing, cut workload)? Empower the profession. And that’s another challenge altogether.

@Ed_Dorrell

This article originally appeared in the 21 June 2019 issue under the headline “Real change doesn’t come from politicians – it comes from within”