Analysis: What's behind Damian Hinds' focus on teacher workload?

10th March 2018 at 05:02
What's behind Damian Hinds making workload the subject of his first major speech as education secretary?

Today, Damian Hinds will stand up to speak at the Assocation of School and College Leaders' (ASCL) annual conference in Birmingham

As a (relatively) freshly minted education secretary, Mr Hinds is still regarded as a bit of an enigma, so those who want to know which way the education winds are blowing will closely scrutinise what he has to say.

And the subject he has chosen for his first major speech in front of a teaching audience? Workload.

Mr Hinds will pledge to cut teachers' hours in a bid to boost recruitment and retention in schools. 

He will promise to clarify the roles of Ofsted, regional schools commissioners and other accountability structures to reduce the burden they place on schools, and he will commit to no more curriculum or assessment changes for the remainder of this parliament to give teachers some breathing space.

Damian Hinds' priorities

So what's behind the big play on workload?

Tes understands that Mr Hinds made clear that he would prioritise the issue in meetings with school leaders as soon as he became education secretary.

First impressions take very little time to coalesce – and Mr Hinds is determined to make sure teachers have a positive impression of him by concentrating on the issue, which perhaps riles them more than anything else.

Mr Hinds is looking to secure some quick (and inexpensive) wins from his speech. The moratorium on further assessment and curriculum reform, for example, will go down very well with teachers and school leaders. But considering the huge amount of change which the system is still digesting, it hardly seems likely that the government was going to shake things up again anyway.

While he might have a personal commitment to reducing workload, it's also possible Mr Hinds' emphasis on the issue is being driven by another urgent policy imperative – and by Downing Street. 

A source told Tes that when he was appointed, Number 10 made clear that his most important task was to resolve the recruitment and retention crisis. Tackling workload is integral to that.

Workload discussion

When Mr Hinds appears today, he will be flanked by Amanda Spielman, the Ofsted chief inspector, and by Geoff Barton, ASCL's general secretary. The three figures will hold an on-stage discussion about cutting workload.

Tes understands there are several motivations behind this united front. Ofsted sees it as a good opportunity to highlight the work it has been doing in the year since Ms Spielman was appointed to make sure it does not needlessly contribute to workload. 

All three parties – the DfE, Ofsted and ASCL – believe that there will only be serious movement on workload if school leaders are fully on board. Ofsted can publish as many "myth busters" as it likes, but unless headteachers internalise them, teachers will still end up doing unnecessary work.

Sources say that one of the reasons the DfE and Ofsted have chosen to launch their workload push at the ASCL conference is because they see Mr Barton as a "pragmatist" who they can do business with. The departure of Russell Hobby as the NAHT headteachers' union's general secretary has left a space for a dealmaker who can strongly represent the profession, while engaging constructively with the government. 

Time will tell

For its own part, the ASCL is keen for there to be a collaborative and business-like atmosphere at this year's conference. It has no desire for a re-run of last year's conference, when the then education secretary Justine Greening was jeered by delegates about the government's grammar school policy. ASCL's stance is not without risk – it could be counter-productive if it is seen to be too close to the government.

So will Mr Hinds be successful in cutting workload? Teachers won't need reminding that they've been here before. It was only two years ago that Nicky Morgan unveiled the conclusions of her Workload Challenge, to much fanfare. That too had buy-in from Ofsted and the unions.

Only time will tell whether the DfE latest assault on workload will make a more meaningful dent.

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