Damian Hinds says he can’t do much to reduce teacher workload. We might, at first, take some comfort from this. The education secretary has found himself in the same position as many school and college leaders – without the resources or capacity to do his job the way that he would have wanted!
More seriously, though, his comments require closer scrutiny. And, in doing so, the reason he’s struggling becomes all too clear. For many months the Department for Education’s workload taskforce has focused its attention on marking, planning and data. The advice in these reports and the associated toolkit is excellent; but we need to understand that these three strands are the manifestations of a workload problem, not the cause. They are the symptoms, not the disease.
So let’s look at what’s causing the disease.
If you ask any teacher about their recent experiences, one of the dominant themes is the wholly inadequate resourcing and last-minute implementation of curriculum changes. Some new A levels were not finalised until six working weeks before they were due to begin. A wide range of subjects had no published resources to support the courses on offer. Of course, teachers can and should seek out the best informative sources they can; but, across the land, every individual teacher found themselves performing an additional task that could have been avoided. Likewise, how many teachers spent hours generating exam-style assessment questions in the total absence of specimen material?
Exam reforms hit teacher workload
This is a result of the DfE’s insistence on pressing ahead with the reform timetable regardless of the consequences.
Similarly, for very many teachers, the biggest source of workload is having to teach outside their specialist subject areas. Helping out, for example, by taking a Year 7 maths class or teaching an unfamiliar science is a common experience. There are some maths departments with no maths specialists at all. Those who find themselves in this position report how much extra time is needed to prepare for each of these lessons. And the reason for this extra workload lies squarely with the Department and its failure to address the recruitment and retention catastrophe (it’s more than a crisis!).
And then there’s the impact of cuts on increasing class sizes. In some schools these have risen exponentially. Class size is one of the most significant drivers of workload and one of the most obvious consequences of austerity. Once again, the DfE has absolute control over this aspect of workload.
So, Damian, it turns out that you may not be able to do much to soothe the symptoms; but you certainly could do a lot to address some of the causes of the DfE’s workload crisis.
Dr Robin Bevan is headteacher at Southend High School for Boys