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'Only by trusting teachers to get on with their job will we tackle workload and stress'

School leaders have a responsibility to do what they can to reduce workload, but, ultimately, the government must end its obsession with data, writes one experienced leader

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School leaders have a responsibility to do what they can to reduce workload, but, ultimately, the government must end its obsession with data, writes one experienced leader

It’s been all about workload this week. Last weekend’s Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference saw secretary of state Damian Hinds tackled head-on about it. I guess I contributed to the discussion in this piece about marking. Though that generated plenty of comment, few disagreed with my observation that teachers should do less and sometimes need to be rescued from themselves, and from their generous instinct of wanting to give the best possible feedback to their students.

Suggestions flew around the Twittersphere that Ofsted should monitor schools’ efforts to reduce teacher workload. Though no irony was intended, it made me smile nonetheless. I pictured the forms teachers would be required to fill in so that schools could present inspectors with comprehensive data demonstrating how they’re reducing the requirement of teachers to fill in... hold on! I’ll have to think it out again.

Thus it was timely this week to read, on Tes online, Emma Kell commenting that: “Most teachers feel overworked – but that doesn’t stop them from finding the joy in teaching. The biggest problem is the lack of trust and professional integrity from senior leaders. I’d disagree with little of that fine analysis, though perhaps it’s inevitable that, as a senior leader myself, I wouldn’t focus all the blame in that direction. True, we hear too many stories of gung-ho heads, or CEOs of multi-academy trusts, driving teachers ruthlessly to raise attainment in their school, often making what appear unreasonable demands.

I would never defend that approach, though I might feel a twinge of sympathy for the head under the cosh from the MAT boss, or indeed from government targets. Countless times I’ve written how wrong commentators are to blame schools for transmitting pressure to teachers or students. Most leaders I know try desperately not to: but sometimes they fail because they are under such stress themselves.

'A balanced diet of marking and assessment'

As Emma Kell wrote, it comes down to a lack of trust, from the very top – downward to the teacher at the chalk face. Successive administrations, regardless of political complexion and despite promises to avoid the pitfall, have been obsessed with the need to see proof that something is happening, “evidence of impact”.

It’s true for teachers. It’s true for senior leaders. It’s true for the head, and for the CEO of the MAT. Schools cannot claim to be achieving anything without a paper trail to prove it, the requisite boxes all ticked. Consider all those safeguarding regulations and requirements, for example – all required to be meticulously charted.

We need to tackle workload from both ends. As I wrote last week, teachers, as professionals, need to take charge of this for themselves. They would do well to study Dylan Wiliam’s recommendation of four quarters marking: teachers should mark in detail 25 per cent of what students do; skim another 25 per cent; monitor students self-assessing about 25 per cent. Finally, peer assessment should be the other 25 per cent. As he says: “It’s a sort of balanced diet of different kinds of marking and assessment.”

It makes sense: sampling is a good method – unless you’re data-obsessed. As our government is.

In my long years as a head, I have witnessed constant creeping regulation, an incessant demand for ever more data to feed into the Department for Education computer (once claimed to be the most powerful in the world, beating even Nasa’s calculating ability). That insatiable, data-gluttonous machine should go on a diet: and teachers, like other professionals (health-workers, for a start), should once more be trusted.

We must get back to an assumption that they are doing their job, and doing it well, unless there are indications to the contrary. Only thus can we hope truly to tackle pressure, stress and workload.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim headteacher of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. He tweets @bernardtrafford

To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue

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