Seven ways to cut workload: a blog-by-blog guide

30th March 2016 at 16:09
ascl, leora cruddas, workload, workload challenge
Teaching ignites passion and purpose. But how to cut back on unnecessary workload? This week, the government offered its suggestions. Here, a senior figure in the headteachers' union ASCL provides some profession-led alternatives

Additional workload is work teachers do which takes them away from the complex process of teaching and learning. Let’s be clear –  this is driven by an out-of-kilter accountability culture.

Teachers’ and leaders’ workload can be managed and reduced through a coordinated effort. However, we must not position teaching in an outdated industrial era of clocking on and off. Teaching is first and foremost a profession. As such, it ignites passion and moral purpose. It is born of the conviction that teachers make a difference in the lives of children. Teachers come into the profession with a commitment to evaluate constantly the way in which their practice improves children’s and young people’s learning and life chances.

However, there is a problem that needs to be solved – too many teachers say that they are required to carry out unnecessary tasks that add to an already substantial workload. We must therefore consider ways to reduce tasks that are done for unnecessary compliance processes, taking teachers away from what really matters.

Last weekend saw the publication of a series of documents aimed at reducing unnecessary workload for teachers. As the introduction to these reports states: “All parts of the education system have a role to play in reducing the unnecessary tasks that take teachers and school leaders away from their core task: improving outcomes for children.” This must be right.

The reports focus on three areas: reducing the burdens of marking, planning and data management. The Association of School and College Leaders has argued that, while the Workload Challenge highlighted these three areas of teaching as being potentially burdensome, trying to tackle these areas separately may oversimplify matters. Teaching is a complex activity and the areas are interlinked. It may be, for example, that a small increase in time allocated to planning could generate considerable savings in marking and collecting data.

The reports provide some helpful and some less helpful recommendations. I am, however, more interested in the way that the teachers and leaders are dealing with the intractable issues of workload in schools now.

So here are my top-seven blogs – the voices of real teachers and leaders (and in three cases, respected researchers) who have something important to say on the subject.

Let’s talk about feedback

The debate about marking rages on – marking in different coloured pens, deep marking, to mark or not to mark… Why are we still talking about marking? Let’s talk about feedback.

We know from academic John Hattie’s work that feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement. But research has also shown that this impact can be either positive or negative. The type of feedback and the way it is given can be influential in different ways.

In this short blog, Hattie and Helen Timperley provide a conceptual model for effective feedback. This is useful stuff – evidence-informed ideas that we can use here and now.

In another fascinating blog called When Feedback Met Bloom, Stephen Tierney cites Hattie’s three effective feedback questions:

  1. Feed up – where am I going? (the goals)
  2. Feedback – how am I going?
  3. Feed forward – where to next?

He suggests that each of these questions can be asked at a task, process and self-regulation level. He says: “These levels have much in common with Bloom’s 'taxonomy', which I still have a certain affinity with since being introduced to it as a young teacher.”

The blog gives some really useful examples of effective feedback mapped to Bloom’s knowledge dimensions.

Then there is Jo Facer, an English teacher from Michaela Community School. Her blog is really interesting. She charts her own journey from “remaining steadfastly concerned that marking worked” to an emerging realisation that she could read (rather than mark) her pupils’ books once or twice a week: “I teach four classes, each with between 28 and 32 pupils, so it is about 120 books in all. I read 60 books in 30 minutes. As I read, I make notes: spellings lots are getting wrong, things they’re all doing well at, and the main issues they need to improve.” This is the stuff that good feedback is made of.

In a self-improving system, we need to seek constantly the most effective practice – the practice that moves us forward. Tom Sherrington describes a visit to Saffron Walden County High School. He’d heard it had an excellent whole-school approach to marking and feedback. Sherrington quotes John Hartley, the head of Saffron Walden, who described the whole-school approach very simply: “closing the gap."

Sherrington concludes: “All that is common is the concept, the theme, the mantra – that students need to close the gap between the work they have done originally and a higher level of work suggested by the feedback they receive. In other words, ‘closing the gap’ means ‘acting on feedback’.”

Familiar confusion

This list would not be complete without referencing the thorny issue of textbooks. In Teaching to the Text: England and Singapore, Robin Alexander gives a thoughtful synopsis of the issue. He unpacks the assumption that, among the East Asian top performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment, it is textbooks that make the difference – “the familiar confusion of association with causality”.

The most interesting part of this blog for me is the citation of David Hogan:

“The essential challenge facing Western jurisdictions is not so much to mimic East Asian instructional regimes, but to develop a more balanced pedagogy that focuses not just on knowledge transmission and exam performance, but on teaching that requires students to engage in subject-specific knowledge building.

“Knowledge-building pedagogies recognise the value of established knowledge, but also insist that students need to be able to do knowledge work as well as learn about established knowledge. Above all, this means students should acquire the ability to recognise, generate, represent, communicate, deliberate, interrogate, validate and apply knowledge claims in light of established norms in key subject domains.”

Let’s measure what we value

And, finally, there is the question of how we eliminate unnecessary workload associated with data management. Andy Hargreaves and Henry Braun outline six principles for using data to hold people accountable:

  1. Measure what is valued, instead of valuing only what can easily be measured, so that the purpose of schooling is not distorted
  2. Create a balanced scorecard of metrics and indicators that captures the full range of what the school system values
  3. Insist on credible, high-quality data that is stable and accurate
  4. Design and select data that is usable in real time
  5. Develop shared decision-making and responsibility for data analysis and improvement
  6. Be the drivers, not the driven

While Hargreaves and Braun do not address workload reduction per se, they provide a powerful set of principles that would strengthen our approach to data. Perhaps the last point – be the drivers, not the driven – speaks most powerfully on the subject of workload.

Finally, in Proof of Progress, David Didau outlines the comparative-judgment trial that his school, Swindon Academy, is undertaking in collaboration with Chris Wheadon. This brings us full circle – back to marking versus feedback, the contested issue of assessment and how to collect useful data to demonstrate pupil progress.

I am ending with this blog for one reason: it demonstrates how, in a self-improving system, it is incumbent on us, as a profession, to find our own evidence-based solutions. ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System argues that teachers and leaders must both use and create evidence.

If we are to unleash greatness, the profession must lead the way.

Leora Cruddas is director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders. She tweets as @LeoraCruddas

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