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'Dear Damian, to tackle teacher workload, you must tackle Ofsted's expectations'

Cutting back bureaucracy may make the task of inspectors harder – and would require greater skill from them – but the time teachers spend preparing for Ofsted could be better spent, argues one head of department

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Cutting back bureaucracy may make the task of inspectors harder – and would require greater skill from them – but the time teachers spend preparing for Ofsted could be better spent, argues one head of department

Dear Mr Hinds, 

I am delighted that you are showing yourself to be so willing to tackle the workload burden that has caused stress to many teachers, lost our profession many others – and left many classes facing a succession of supply teachers, because there are no specialist teachers to fill the vacancies.

That you are engaging with those at the top is valuable. You understand how important it is to unite the profession while there is still a profession to unite.

As I know that you have many important people to meet and limited time, I hope that by writing down my own proposals I might add my voice to the many calling for far-reaching reform – and widen your perspective.

As a first principle, it should be established that no school has the right to expect unlimited hours of teachers’ time. I, along with many others, would welcome clarity about expectations – and a government-imposed requirement for a cap on hours spent inside and outside the classroom on educational work. Nottingham local authority has been trialing such a structure. It has worked hard to get senior leaders involved, but there is nothing like a directive from the top to impose protection for teachers who cannot fulfill all the demands placed on them.

This can be measured. A school in my area currently issues every teacher with a kind of statement showing how many of the annual 1,265 hours of directed time they will be fulfilling and a breakdown of how those hours will be spent. A similar budget could be worked out by taking an average of hours spent on each set of books in different disciplines and planning tasks, then agreeing on a total of hours per week.

Workload management

Reducing frequency of data-drops to a maximum of once a term would bring back a measure of sanity to the tracking process.  Instead of dwelling on small-scale interventions that rarely reach fruition – let alone evaluation – teachers could change where necessary. A selective approach by senior leaders to reduce the volume of data required would not go amiss. It might even be more effective in securing progression, as there is a better chance of filtering the signal from the noise.

Researching and planning are more difficult to legislate for. Many teachers enjoy reading around their subjects. It enhances the quality of knowledge they pass on to their classes. There have been some very patronising articles about teachers’ efforts from providers of materials. Textbooks and online resources have the potential to dumb down teaching. Access to high-quality materials is vital, but the judgement about how best to teach should be left to the professional.

What teachers need is time. My suggestions relate so far only to marking, planning and data management. Three strands of the workload reviews undertaken by the independent working parties. In my daily working life, there are other components of the job that have grown over the years.

Technology is a mixed blessing. It has supported extraneous tasks that have become routine practice.  For example, trip software requires the leader to fill in forms twice at least for the most simple of trips.  Class registration is more onerous and intrusive, thanks to new IT platforms. Use of moodles and similar platforms allow work to be set and a record to be kept, but these all take time.

Pay problems

There is too much repetition of tasks assigned to middle leaders. The most difficult of all is their contribution to the paperwork for performance-related pay. The payment system is constrained by government economic policy. It adds unnecessary workload for appraisees and appraisers.

There is much to accomplish in a small window of opportunity, given the current lifespan of education secretaries. However, it is not impossible to accomplish major structural change. Mr Gove managed to dismantle longstanding school structures and institute a new exam system across two key stages in his time.

It would be good to know that the work set in train by your predecessors would not be wasted. The inspection regime could be firmed up to strengthen inspectors’ hands. This could include ensuring that school leaders would be expected to minimise expectations of planning.

The things that contribute disproportionately to teachers’ workload are the things that make the inspectors’ job easier. What a boon it is for the inspector to see piles of dialogically-intense, neatly-marked exercise books. But shouldn’t they be asking: couldn’t the time have been better spent?

Welcome clarity

Cutting back bureaucracy will make the task of the inspectorate harder. It will require greater skills of discernment. It is good to see Amanda Spielman continuing to attack the crippling myths that misdirect so much effort in the system. I hope she will also support training for her colleagues, so that the inspection process can support learning in the way it used to do. Clarity of expectation and procedure is a welcome first step.

Saturday’s meeting at ASCL may be a constructive sharing of views, but as the DfE research published the same day shows, much more is needed. 

Larger class sizes make unsustainable workload impossible for classroom teachers to manage. There is intelligent understanding of the causes of excessive workload. The workload groups and schools conducting research into the effects of alternative practices demonstrate that. Hopefully, you will find time to engage with these people, too.

Yours sincerely,


Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the south of England.  

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