Cutting workload shouldn't mean shuffling work around

Often 'workload reduction' simply means shifting the burden. School leaders need to try harder, says Michael Tidd

Teacher workload: School leaders need to try harder to reduce the burden, says Michael Tidd

January is always hard going. Dark mornings, short evenings and the inevitable scraping of ice from the windscreen on too many mornings all make it feel like you’ve ever-less time to yourself.

So it’s no surprise that this time of year is a popular time for job hunting, whatever your profession. Too often, it’s also when teachers who have had their fill decide to start looking for other options.

It’s six years now since the Department for Education undertook its workload survey. It received 44,000 responses, and I can’t help but think that, if it repeated the survey today, it would still get a similar number of responses

But, as I’ve said before, it often isn’t the DfE that is in control of workload: it’s school leaders. And still, too often, we’re getting it wrong. 

Shunting teacher workload elsewhere

So often these days I hear of changes made in the name of reducing workload, which actually serve only to shunt it elsewhere.

Often it’s because of a lack of trust in teachers – or a fear that being seen to trust teachers too much won’t do when it comes to inspection. But it absolutely will. 

The big three areas of workload highlighted by the DfE’s survey were around planning, marking and data – and I suspect they still remain the problem.

If you’ve swapped detailed written lesson plans for another prescribed approach to individual lesson planning, whether it’s Post-In notes or annotations on the overview, all you’ve done is shift the workload. 

Most teachers are perfectly capable of taking medium-term plans or – shock, horror – a scheme, and adapting it for their classes without writing down how they’re doing it.

As soon as you introduce any compulsory element of how teachers plan, and especially if you’re monitoring it, you’re creating workload.

The obsession with evidence

When it comes to marking, one thing is clear from the evidence: the evidence is not all that clear. Wisely, most schools have recognised that, in the absence of any good evidence for detailed written marking, other ways are a better use of time. 

But, as ever, ideas get corrupted. In a profession that seems to insist on providing evidence of every action, whole-class marking sheets have become fashionable. Instead of teachers making decisions for themselves about what they need to record (if anything), they must instead fill in a form listing names and setting out next steps. 

The workload hasn’t disappeared: it’s just shifted. And you can guarantee that, in some schools, those feedback sheets are being checked by school leaders.

Stop doing things

For once, we have Ofsted to thank for the fact that data collection must surely be on the decline, at least when it comes to core subjects. Years of scrawling down sub-levels every six weeks have gone out of the window, as Ofsted makes clear that it will ask questions about schools collecting data more than three times a year. 

But…if as a school leader you have taken this shift in thinking as an opportunity to bring in tracking of every subject every term, then you haven’t reduced workload at all: just shifted it.

The list goes on. Reducing workload needs to be about stopping doing things, not just changing how or when we do them. 

You haven’t reduced workload if you’ve stopped teachers from sending emails on a Sunday evening but still expect them to read the ones you’ve sent at some point on Monday. You haven’t reduced workload if you’ve given over a couple of assemblies for teachers to tackle their new subject-leadership responsibilities. 

And let’s not even get started on the madness of trying to resolve workload issues by adding in extra “wellbeing” meetings.

Don’t just change things: stop things.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories

Computers in schools can benefit but only sometimes

A fresh start for edtech? Maybe. But the road is bumpy

Since the coronavirus crisis took hold, an extraordinary amount has been achieved in a staggeringly short period of time by schools, teachers and edtech companies – but more leadership is needed from the centre
Ty Goddard 4 Apr 2020