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‘Ofsted and the DfE must take a look at themselves before analysing how we manage our workload’

Stephen Tierney, executive director of the Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust, and blogger at Leading Learner, writes:

I don’t want to be negative, but I need to be honest with you: you’re all working too hard. In fact, schools have become places where young people go to watch old people work.

It would be very easy to be cynical about the government’s Workload Challenge and its timing – just before a general election. However, cynicism serves little purpose and is possibly not the most professional response. 

Work comes in different shapes and sizes. Work that interests me and gives me joy never seems to be burdensome. Look at the time teachers give up to attend Teach Meets, engage in Twitter conversations or blogging and go over and above what is required of them in their contracts. 

But then there is the burden of work created by others through pernicious accountability and rushed or idiosyncratic reform. Even a small amount of this type of work creates a load which feels heavy, uncomfortable and unnecessary.

The government’s workload consultation is framed around three simple questions:

  • Tell us about the unnecessary and unproductive tasks which take up too much of your time. Where do these come from?
  • Send us your solutions and strategies for tackling workload – what works well in your school?
  • What do you think should be done to tackle unnecessary workload – by government, by schools or by others?

The Department for Education website already has a number of suggestions to reduce workload, including more PPA time, reducing data collection, clearer Ofsted guidance, shorter meetings and improving IT. There is nothing wrong with these and many of the suggestions seem eminently sensible. 

By way of example, PPA time could easily be radically increased – double class size and you can halve a teacher’s actual contact time, liberating hours for planning, preparation and assessment, but I don’t think this is what the respondents meant. Let’s be careful what we ask for.

The fact is that the suggestions above look at some of the symptoms of our stressed education system, when we need to look deeper to identify the root causes. If we were to deal with the root causes, not only are the symptoms alleviated but the long-term health of the system is secured.

There are two main root causes – accountability and rushed reform.

First up, accountability. In the same way assessment drives the curriculum and teachers are required to teach to a test, accountability drives workload and leaders dance to its tune. If you have a great test or intelligent accountability, then it works well.  However, the dance becomes increasingly frenetic where the accountability system is high stakes.

The problem with the current accountability system is that it lacks intelligence. It’s questionable to what extent it is a valid and reliable measure of the quality of the schooling rather than the ability or disadvantage of the intake. Schools working with hard-pressed families or constrained city-dwellers are particularly vulnerable to poor Ofsted grades and the subsequent vilification. 

You can, for example, identify root causes of excessive workload from some of Ofsted’s latest changes. Exercise books are about to become the new lesson-grading phenomenon, with progress expected every two pages. What we’re hearing from inspectors is: “You can tell so much from looking at a student’s exercise book.” What we should be hearing is, “You can only tell so much from looking at a student’s exercise book.” 

It’s difficult to see “realistic expectations for marking pupils’ work” any time soon in a school looking down the barrel of an Ofsted inspection or coming out of one without at least a good. That’s about 62 per cent of schools in the North West and looking worse if you work in a coastal town. Context is everything; I’m not convinced that the clarifications or latest handbook go far enough.

Rushed change by central government is one of the great drivers of workload and angst in the profession. I’m all for effective meetings, but the chance of shorter meetings and fewer of them is unlikely any time soon in schools. The number and manner of introduction of curriculum and examination changes over the next few years is overwhelming. Changes at all key stages to the national curriculum and examination syllabi will keep teachers discussing things in many a meeting as well as working long hours to implement the changes. Allied to this is the sequencing of change. In core subjects at Key Stage 3, teachers will be required to rethink the curriculum for the next three years while cohorts of Year 6 children enter secondary schools having been taught a different national curriculum from the year before.

Change for politicians in England needs to happen quickly. Sadly, this can be at the expense of a coherent educational experience for children and increased workload for teachers. The introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland occurred over a decade. This seems unthinkable in England.

Idiosyncratic changes are also a problem; they tend to come and go with alarming regularity as the Secretary of State changes: introducing the E-Bacc, getting rid of AS-levels and calling anyone who disagrees an enemy of promise or the blob – this adds to angst and adds to workload.

There is a need for politicians and civil servants to sit down with the profession and look at all the current and forthcoming initiatives that need to be implemented. It’s not too late to rethink some and reschedule others.  A more measured approach to change and better change management are key ways to reduce teachers’ workload.

For me, it is key that we must not blame school leaders.

The story goes that a young man set out to change the world for the better. After many years of failure, he decided to focus on changing a village. He had little success and decided that he would go home and concentrate on changing his family. He had no joy with this either. As the years passed and his wisdom grew, he realised that he should have started by changing himself first.

My advice is that the Department for Education and Ofsted should seek to change themselves first before looking at others. They remove the additional workload they create unnecessarily for teachers. My experience is that where the Department for Education and Ofsted go, headteachers and senior leaders invariably follow.

Related links:

Workload survey hits 50,000 responses

Workload Challenge: teachers tell government how to ease their burden

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