In Dickens’ David Copperfield, Mr Micawber reminds us: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery."
As school budgets are squeezed, school leaders are increasingly concerned with making sure that they get the maximum benefit from each pound spent; but what if we started treating time in the same way?
The idea of a directed time budget is nothing new. Since I started teaching, we have known that we could be directed for 1,265 hours a year, spread over 195 days. This amounts to around six-and-a-half hours a day.
Most of this is when we are directed to teach, attend meetings, be on duty, go to parents evening and attend Inset days. But what of the rest of a teacher’s workload? The rest of the planning, marking and assessment that spills out of the school day isn’t going to fit into those 6.5 hours and I suspect that few of us would argue it should. So how much additional work should we be expected to do?
There are few school leaders who don’t believe that their staff are working incredibly hard and who would want them putting in more hours.
So let’s agree to call this Year Zero. Whatever hours people are putting in now, we will see as an absolute maximum that we cannot go over without getting into a time debt. If we can agree on that then there are suddenly lots of interesting implications.
If we do agree that we don’t want people working longer hours, but we want to introduce a new idea into the school, we suddenly have to think carefully about its time cost and how this cost will be met.
Let’s say an assistant headteacher has been allowed to go on a fact-finding mission to another school and comes back brimming with new ideas, one of which is to ask staff to telephone five parents every week with a positive comment. A bold new plan to boost parental engagement and motivate the pupils with almost no cost to the school!
But, of course, there is a time cost that needs to be met by his over-worked colleagues and this needs to be quantified and it needs to be decided where this time will come from.
Not only does this process ensure that workload doesn’t continue to spiral out of control, but it forces us to consider the opportunity cost of any new initiative. Dylan Wiliam reminds us that “everything works somewhere”. The challenge is not only in working out whether that idea is a good idea, but also if it is a better idea than any alternative.
Weighing up the options
Let us return to our assistant headteacher busily phoning parents. He has established this task will take teachers an additional 30 minutes a week (I tried, it does).
Is this idea good enough to justify the cost in time? Will they remove a couple of duties from everyone to do this? Will they change a way of analysing data to free up this time? Will they remove the need for writing subject reports?
To balance their time budget, something will have to be removed. Every new initiative is now subjected to the same level of scrutiny it would be if it was one that had a financial cost. This needs to be more than a thought experiment. The numbers need crunching. The time cost is taken seriously.
This isn’t only an issue for senior leaders, but one for middle leaders, too, who will be full of their own wonderful ideas. It can also be used to help teachers decide on their own priorities and deciding whether something is worth doing as it reminds us it is being done at the expense of something else.
We need to stop focusing only on the financial cost of what we do and start asking: “What is the maximum bang for each time buck?”
Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College and blogs at teachreal.wordpress.com