'The fix for workload? Put ministers, school leaders, policy wonks, consultants and bloggers back in touch with the classroom'

This assistant vice principal says that people like him – and those above him – need to be better at realising the reality of classroom life

Aidan Severs

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"Teachers must…", "Teachers need to…", "Teachers should…"

These are potentially my most used phrases when writing articles on education. Occasionally other groups will be on the receiving end of my strongly worded ‘advice’, but usually it’s teachers because teaching is what I know.

Recently, I have been pulled up on my use of these phrases – turns out teachers don’t like being told what to do. Now there’s a surprise.

My sharing comes from a desire to help others, never from a position of wanting to overburden and bludgeon teachers who are already striving to do their best. But I can see how it comes across sometimes and it got me thinking.

Out of touch

I started noticing something: those who are no longer classroom-based run the risk of being idealistic rather than realistic. I also realised something else: teachers are constantly having to walk the line between their own ideals and what is expected of them.

It’s easy for education ministers, government departments, Ofsted chiefs, school leaders, research champions, bloggers, journalists, consultants and advisers to be idealistic in their views and demands – they’re not the ones who have to put an impossible mix of requirements, coming from a myriad of places, into practice.

For teachers, who will also have their own ideas of how and what needs to happen in their classroom (probably based on a deep knowledge of the children in their class – y’know, formative assessment and all that), juggling all these plates often means finding a realistic middle ground.

Workload issues

So what can be done? How do we support those who are out there on the frontiers of education: our brilliant teachers?

It’s simple. We empathise with them, we ask them for their opinions on how manageable our requirements are. We find out from them if they think changes could be made to make policies more efficient and effective. We plug ourselves back into the classroom and experience it ourselves. We fight their corner and do what we can to fight back against and influence poor policy that only makes a teacher’s job that bit less possible.

You see, those no longer in the classroom will always be perceived to be sitting high in ivory towers if they never come down into the real world. A world in which, in reality, all the policies, initiatives and "exciting new projects" congeal into a mass of unworkable expectations, rather than being the neat jigsaw pieces that leaders in their idealism think will slot nicely together.

Mismatched aims

Of course, the literacy consultant will want children to spend all afternoon reading and writing, and the maths lead will have a whole host of great ways to link maths to topic work, and Ofsted will be looking at the wider curriculum, and the Department for Education will be championing tests and exams that focus on the ‘core’ subjects.

And if those non-teachers are not willing to take time to sift through the endlessly mounting requirements and to provide ways to make them workable, they will find themselves with a retention crisis on their hands (the irony is not lost on me here).

Leaders must (there, I said it) be hard at streamlining what is required, enabling teachers to do their jobs without having to compromise anything.

Sound difficult? Well it is, but it’s what teachers do day in, day out.

Aidan Severs is an assistant vice principal at a primary school in the North of England. He blogs at ThatBoyCanTeach and tweets @thatboycanteach

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Aidan Severs

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