'Our excessively demanding practices on workload don't actually improve attainment – things need to change'

Now that Ofsted has realised the severity of excessive teacher workload, one teacher and former member of the marking workload group shares her advice on what can schools can do to make a difference

Yvonne Williams

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In 2014, Nicky Morgan’s Workload Challenge was a significant milestone in the relationship between teachers and the Department for Education. 

It signalled the beginning of an ongoing – often frustrating – process to cut the excesses of classroom teachers’ workload. At last, teachers were being given a kind of entitlement to discuss publicly the aspects of their job that were unproductive, even counterproductive.  The profession’s legitimate concerns were to be taken seriously, with a view to changing practice.

According to the DfE’s July survey, some progress has been with 23 per cent of school leaders using the workload reports as a basis for making changes to practice that would impact on teachers’ workload, 26 per cent using advice from Ofsted and 17 per cent having conducted surveys.  But that leaves considerable gaps. 

There were still 57 per cent of schools where there was no impact on workload. 

The Marking Group contained some inspirational teachers, whose foresight and focused practice could show benefits in terms of staff morale and pupil progress. The group’s curriculum experts deepened the discussions into what learning is and how it differs from performance. 

The whole task was not about superficial quick fixes.  The DfE’s website contains some illuminating case studies, which could be enormously useful to schools looking for advice.

Dealing with excessive workload

The reports’ analysis of the causes of excessive workload and their pragmatic approach to recommendations should have persuaded others to follow suit.  Some did and others seized the opportunity to research more deeply.  The results of these experiments are being evaluated. 

I was privileged to participate in the Inside Government conference in June, Managing Teacher Workload Effectively, where some of the new approaches were presented.  Four models seem to have emerged from that day:

  • Rejecting old practices, particularly multi-coloured marking.  A primary school, which had contacted Dawn Copping (the Marking Group’s chair) for advice, had put her methods into practice.  Staff morale improved and the school is happy with the effect on pupils’ learning.
  • A mixed approach using a variety of methods best suited to the context.  For example, for mock examinations, my school still uses traditional marking, with detailed feedback reports for the year group on each paper, and with examples of good performance.  Our pupils are very responsive to specific advice at this stage of their school careers.  However, we take a very strategic approach to the curriculum and assessment for other year groups during this period.  All pupils undertake a research project for two weeks and each individual gives a presentation at the end using only one prompt card for notes.  Their presentations are marked on a feedback sheet as the pupils deliver them, and their peers also provide comments.  Peer assessment is excellent for formative pieces because it provides insight into how pupils judge their own work and how they understand the criteria on which they will be judged.
  • A radical change in practice, as demonstrated by one high school.  In an experiment with Year 10, one group was assessed in the normal way to act as a control, while the test group’s work was not marked.  The latter was, however, assessed by various means and a lot of feedback given.  What was most attractive was that pupils were given more independence and involvement.  Traditional marking tends to allow pupils to hand over responsibility as they hand in a piece of work. Early indications are that there have been definite gains for the experimental group.
  • Set time limits on staff work outside school hours. If all else fails, school leaders could, in negotiation with union leaders, simply follow the example of the Nottingham City Fair Workload Charter which limits outside-school work to two hours per school day. Such a strategy seems likely to concentrate the mind, but it is in its earliest days and takes a lot of persuasion to implement it.

But, it is an unfortunate truth that if you want things done, you have to put the force of inspection behind it.  Ofsted is now targeting workload in its inspections, as the latest public messages from Sean Harford and Amanda Spielman show.  This places the workload “budget” on a par with finance and health and safety.

Putting aside justifiable criticism of the part played by Ofsted under the two Michaels (Wilshaw and Gove) in creating the current excess, schools now need to find visible, practical ways to be compliant. 

Forward-looking schools, already down that route, are feeling the benefit in staff well-being and motivation as well as in discernible effects on achievement.

At a DfE Workload Challenge follow-up meeting earlier in the year, a teacher from the one Trust shared her experience with the group.  Her responsibility for workload across her school entails working with leadership and teachers to ensure a reasonable work-life balance.  When the school was inspected, she was interviewed and asked to show evidence. 

The workload reports have not yet enticed those school leaders who are under most pressure to change their ways. 

It seems to be the case that the deeper schools are in special measures, the more they cling to quantity (dialogic marking, excessive frequency and faster turnaround of assignments) as a visible sign of their commitment to raising standards.

So, what do the research and responses to Ofsted’s recent pronouncements suggest we might do if we were to tackle the excesses of workload thoroughly and systematically across an organisation?

A practical approach 

1. Start with the DfE’s own literature. Read them and to select action points from the recommendations that apply to them:

  • Adopt a strategic approach to data collection and streamline practice: collect once, use many times.
  • Cut dialogic and multi-coloured marking: re-align so that the pupil is the primary audience, and place marking within a holistic assessment policy
  • Put aside more time for joint planning sessions for departments.
  • Buy good quality generic textbooks (rather than exam-board-approved models which have a much shorter shelf-life) to support learning in the long term.
  • Review policies and practice relating to planning, marking and data collection to cut wasteful practice.

2. Be more forward-looking:

  • Read case studies on the DfE website and review the possible implications for the school.  Not all solutions will suit all schools.
  • Institute classroom research to investigate the benefits of innovative practice or to generate new ideas.
  • Contact schools which have been involved in initiatives, and share good practice.
  • Form support groups and research groups in the local area or in the Trusts.
  • Appoint someone to oversee the workload initiative in the school, and empower them to propose changes and follow-up in the longer term. 

3.      Find out how hours are being spent in the organisation:

  • Ask teachers to look at the calendar published by the school each academic year and submit a total of directed hours for compulsory meetings and events outside school hours.
  • Find the peak workload period – usually, January mocks – and use a sample of teachers from each department to complete a fortnightly log of the “invisible hours” to put on a spreadsheet for analysis.
  • Ask teachers to highlight unhelpful practice and make suggestions for improvement.
  • Make workload a standing item on senior and middle leaders’ agendas and meetings.
  • Set smart targets for workload reduction.

 

None of these suggestions are new or particularly revolutionary – and in the past they have gained little traction.  However, two key elements have changed.

There is greater trade union unity, which means that schools and trusts will now have to deal with the NEU.

And the rhetoric has changed from the era of The Two Michaels.  The supply of classroom teachers is diminishing: recruitment is significantly down, vacancies are at a record high, and retention is suffering.

Disengaged by the excesses of the accountability system, either through stress-related illness or disillusionment with the daily reality of their vocation, experienced (and not-so-experienced) teachers are leaving. 

Could it be that main obstacle to reducing workload lies in teachers’ and leaders’ attitudes?  A recent Tes article examined the fears of teachers and leaders facing inspection.  Fear has been a very powerful motivator for far too long.  In the short term it gets certain results, perhaps just enough to tide a school over its next inspection.  Long-term it causes excessive and debilitating stress, disengagement and the loss of teachers. 

And as an experienced colleague commented, our excessively demanding practices have not improved attainment. 

We may be virtually at the top of the workload league but we are being outranked in key international leagues such as PISA.

Time for change indeed.

The writer is a head of English and a former member of the marking workload group.  The views expressed are her own.

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Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England

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