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'Let’s pass all new policy through a "workload filter"'

As a head, the allure of seductive new educational initiatives is hard to resist, says James Bowen, but a lack of scepticism is sapping the time of teacher colleagues

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As a head, the allure of seductive new educational initiatives is hard to resist, says James Bowen, but a lack of scepticism is sapping the time of teacher colleagues

I have a confession to make: I was one of those heads who asked teachers to take part in what we called “deep diagnostic marking”. In doing so, my school, like many others, suffered from multiple-coloured-pen syndrome and the never-ending feedback-response cycle.

In writing this article, I am not seeking redemption. I am sharing this story because I think that if we understood why leaders like myself asked teachers to undertake such activities, then we would have a greater chance of doing something about the workload crisis currently burdening so many in the profession.

I don’t think I was some sort of terrible ogre as a school leader. I cared deeply about the wellbeing of my staff and I worried about the workload demands being placed on them. Despite this, I still asked them to engage in this enormously time-consuming feedback practice. So why did I do it?

I can now see that many factors were at play. The first was that I thought I had discovered a silver bullet. I, like every other head, wanted the children in our school to do as well as they possibly could; it looked like this sort of written feedback was the secret to unlocking rapid progress. I had read the research reports promising a high-impact/low-cost solution to learning improvement. Like so many others, I wrongly equated feedback with marking – a mistake I now wince at.

Secondly, I was fearful of being left behind. Every other school I knew in the local area was embarking on this approach and I was deeply worried that if we didn’t do the same, we’d find ourselves falling foul of whoever it was that was coming in to judge the school, be it the local authority or Ofsted. Datalab director Rebecca Allen identified this herd mentality brilliantly, in her recent Caroline Benn memorial lecture, as “mimetic isomorphism”. As a head, I was certainly guilty of this.

Finally, there is no avoiding that, rightly or wrongly, my actions were in part motivated by Ofsted. I had read reports of schools being praised for extensive written feedback and, more pertinently, schools being criticised for giving a lack of feedback to pupils.

Better long-term thinking

Ofsted has done some excellent work in recent years to address this and Sean Harford, the inspectorate’s national director of education, in particular deserves enormous credit for his efforts on inspection myth-busting. But the fact remains that, prior to this work, plenty of inspection reports in the public domain had led school leaders to pursue certain practices.

Understanding these factors helps us identify potential solutions. We undoubtedly need the government to commit to better long-term thinking on education policy. The continual launching and subsequent scrapping of policy initiatives is exhausting and distracting for schools. We also need a continued commitment from Ofsted to continue the work it has embarked on that addresses workload. The second-guessing inspection culture that pervades our system has evolved over decades; it will take some time to undo.

Much needs to happen at a school level, too. Firstly, every school and leader should be prepared to put workload at the top of the agenda. This means careful monitoring of teacher workload, and a workload filter through which all new tasks and policies are passed.

We need school leaders to be professional cynics when faced with the latest fad. Even when the evidence suggests a certain approach could have a high impact, they will still need to be prepared to say no. It may be that the workload implications are simply too high.

Finally, we need heads to be courageous: to be prepared to swim against the tide. If I learned anything about courage during my time as a school leader, it’s that it is much easier to be brave collectively than individually. More school leaders should be working together on this issue. There is security in this sort of collective approach.

Shuffling work around

A few words of warning, though, on school-leader workload: I know plenty of heads and deputies who work late into the night and then spend a day in school at the weekends, just to catch up.

This is not sustainable. Work should not just be moved around the system or the school. I spoke with a school leader recently who was clearly committed to tackling excessive teacher workload, but she was worried that this would mean more work falling into the lap of her and her deputy. The simple truth is: don’t just get different people to do certain things, stop doing them entirely.

I am also nervous about an emerging narrative that puts workload issues squarely at the door of school leaders. It’s the argument that “Ofsted and the Department for Education have done their bit; if you still have workload issues, it’s all down to those nasty leaders.” I think this is both unhelpful and unfair. Pointing the finger of blame at leaders is divisive and achieves little.

Underpinning all of this is the simple truth of a lack of choice. The recruitment and retention pipe is leaking at both ends and we need to stem the flow pretty quickly. Report after report has emerged showing the scale of the problem; workload is nearly always cited as the main reason for people leaving our great profession. The School Teachers’ Review Body captured this point perfectly when it said that the current situation posed “a substantial risk to the effective functioning of an effective education system”.

When it comes to tackling the workload burden, the choice is no longer ours.

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets @JamesJkbowen

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