School leaders are obsessed with consistency. As teachers we’re told what homework to set and when to set it. We get told the types of behaviour that warrant a sanction and the types that don’t, and we get told how often we should mark and give feedback.
Consistency, leaders argue, makes for greater expectations from the pupils and without it standards would slip.
All of this, however, goes out the window when one department willingly does "more" than another.
You see, while schools harp on about consistency, many actively or unintentionally encourage interdepartmental competition. Becoming a "winner" in this inevitably leads to a self-imposed increase in workload, mostly bureaucratic in nature.
I’ll give you an example.
School policy states that pupils’ "working at" grades, "end of term expected" grades, and "end of year target" grades have to be written on a sticker placed on the front of pupils' books.
The head of geography (in a bid to show what her staff do to tackle underachievement) asks her team to stick another piece of paper on the inside cover of books, stating the title of each assessment, the results of each assessment, and one final box where the pupils write a comment outlining the topics they struggled with.
This is despite the fact that her staff already go through every assessment and diagnose any weak areas the following lesson.
It looks good in the books, and the SLT is impressed. The other heads of department suddenly find themselves under to pressure to do the same.
Fast forward a week or so, and in the history department Miss X (who would rather spend her lessons, well, teaching) has had her books called for scrutiny.
She didn’t get her pupils to fill in the sheets, as in her books (pun intended) such bureaucratic nonsense wastes teaching time.
But equally, she doesn’t want to be hauled over coal so wastes two hours doing it herself prior to the scrutiny.
When inconsistency in these kinds of practice leads to more unnecessary work, it’s often ignored. Not-so-ironically, however, this is never the case when it leads to less.
So how do we solve the problem?
When making whole school policy, SLTs – while allowing for some degree of difference between subjects – must not allow for a difference between workloads. (Unless of course if they are planning to pay some teachers more than others!)
Creating an atmosphere of competition instead of harmony usually leads to disgruntled staff and a lack of whole school spirit. This school spirit is absolutely essential in a job so high in emotional labour.
There is no doubt that middle leadership is by far the most pressurised position to be in at a school. The need for middle leaders to be sat in SLT meetings with a pile of exercise books, proudly proclaiming "Look at what we do!" can be fully understood and should not be ignored.
Nonetheless, middle leaders would be more effective, retain more staff, and be better supported by their teams if they prioritised communication over competition.
If middle leaders were in regular talks about marking and feedback with their counterparts in other departments as well as within their teams, they would reach solutions suitable to all stakeholders, and avoid any unnecessary added workload.
Omar Akbar is a teacher and author of The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual – What they don’t teach you in training