5 questions Ofsted should ask about teacher workload

Ofsted plans to look at leaders’ approaches to workload and wellbeing – but it hasn't said how, writes Yvonne Williams

How will Ofsted tackle teacher workload?

The Ofsted annual report and the Teacher Wellbeing Index show that workload is still too high – and increasing – in some schools.

This is especially true where recruitment is an issue, resources are low and changes to the system have led to more bureaucracy – most recently on curriculum intent, implementation and impact. 

Moreover, this leaves teachers’ workplace satisfaction “worryingly low”, and they are “disappointed by the profession”.

These findings ought to promote more decisive action, not least by the very inspectorate that is so often seen as a driver of the workload that edges teachers out

The power to transform teacher workload

However, Ofsted also has the power to transform workload. It is taking steps to reduce data collection in schools, by refusing to look at any such information. And inspections now include a section on how leaders manage their colleagues’ workload.

But does it go far enough? 

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman satisfies herself with a throwaway line about workload and wellbeing at the end of the executive summary of the 2018-2019 annual report: “I look forward to reporting on the outcomes in next year’s annual report.”

Ofsted has been forthcoming about its deep dives into the curriculum, and how these changes have been received.

Ahead of the changes to the inspection framework, there were consultations and pilots with clues about how the curriculum would be assessed.

What Ofsted has not revealed is how it will interrogate leaders’ approaches to workload and wellbeing

Could this be because recruitment and retention aren’t a high enough priority or because Ofsted hasn’t yet worked out what the most important questions are?

There is no reason why the curriculum evaluation of intent, implementation and impact should not be applied equally to workload. 

Five key questions

To help things along, here are the five key questions that, as a long-serving practitioner, I would like the inspectorate to ask:

1. How carefully do you plan the calendar to ensure that your staff are not overburdened?

This should include school data collection, examinations, report deadlines, parents’ evenings, Inset evenings, meetings and any other events teachers must attend. 

A single parents’ evening or a school-directed social event, the marking of mocks or the writing of reports – in isolation, these may not cause overload. But the combination of tasks at a point in the year when the rest of the school is still operating as normal can be overwhelming. 

Reviewing the calendar in terms of workload is also an opportunity to take a properly strategic look at how staff are deployed. 

2. Do you know how many directed hours each of your teachers is allocated? 

A number of schools already send out emails to tell their staff how many hours of meetings and parents’ evenings they expect their staff to attend – but not all do. 

This first step provides clarity and a signal to staff as to what is mandatory and what is voluntary so that they can make childcare and any other necessary arrangements accordingly.

3. Have you evaluated the impact of current practice around common teaching tasks in your school?

What was most striking about the results of the Workload Challenge was that the three central tasks of planning, marking and data entry were highlighted as being most unnecessarily burdensome. 

Effective leaders avoid “gold-plating”: triple marking in many colours, over-frequent data collection and micro-detailed planning.

Ofsted is no longer interested in spreadsheets and graphs compiled by schools – not even as evidence of successful outcomes.

This could be a good time to reduce data overall, and find more valid ways of evaluating practice in the classroom. The knock-on effect could be to improve the quality of assessment, which can then feed into more effective planning. 

4. Do you take into account the many voluntary things teachers contribute? 

Coaching teams, running clubs and organising events for other staff and pupils in local schools are rarely considered part of workload. 

Yet these activities involve many invisible hours of bureaucracy: money collection, venue booking, travel organisation, risk assessments and letters to parents.

Is this also an opportunity to evaluate the wider curriculum, to ensure that support staff are helpfully deployed? Can bureaucracy be streamlined in the interests of efficiency and staff enjoyment? 

5. How far do you balance chore-load with developmental opportunities to enhance staff wellbeing?

Deskilling teachers by making them present scripted lessons is a recipe for disengaging teachers, who are likely to leave the classroom at the earliest opportunity. 

Recent ground-breaking research from Australia by Faye McCullum indicates that challenging teachers intellectually with “specific cognitive skills…engaging in activities that enhanced memory and problem solving, completing tasks that involved information processing, doing puzzles, conducting inquiries into teaching and learning, thinking laterally, and being committed to lifelong learning” could increase resilience and enjoyment.

Like Amanda Spielman, I look forward to reading the 2019-2020 Ofsted report, to see how far leaders have taken their responsibility for staff wellbeing and reducing unnecessary workload.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)

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