Teacher workload: how we can really bring about change

Subject organisations could be the ones within the teaching establishment best placed and best-resourced to truly bring about change, argues Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Mountain climbers

Ed Dorrell’s leader on teacher workload quotes an alarming statistic from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's five-yearly survey of the international teacher workforce, Talis (Teaching and Learning International Survey). Despite the work of the Workload Challenge groups set up in 2014, teachers' working hours in the UK have gone up in the intervening years, making them the highest in Western Europe.

Increased workload means increased teacher disillusionment. It’s yet another prod for leaders to respond more effectively to the problem.

However, I don’t believe that the millions spent on the initial surveys, workload groups and classroom-based research have come to naught; they have raised many questions about effective and even inspiring classroom practice and educational thinking. But the question remains: why have the recommended strategies not been more widely adopted?

We should also be asking why the emotional climate in education hasn’t improved. Ofsted under chief inspector Amanda Spielman is less confrontational than in its previous incarnations. I can even sympathise with Sean Harford, whose work in mythbusting is more onerous than painting the Forth Bridge. Surely the fear that clouded the judgement of educational leaders should be dissipating.

Numerous forums with well-known “names”, supported by all kinds of organisations, often tirelessly chaired by Ed Dorrell (who must by now be an expert on the function) may produce satisfying debate at multi-academy trust level. These inspiring meetings of minds, often aimed at executive and governance leaders, are intended to influence government policy. Such events provide great evangelising moments that will inhabit the Twittersphere for a day or two; but, sadly, the outcomes are as ephemeral as the medium itself.

The view from the summit

There is a huge gap between the intent of the moment and the grinding reality experienced by many of those out of the limelight. The sad truth is that the summit of the Mount Olympus of the education hierarchy is rather sunnier than basecamp – very few rays of sunshine penetrate to classroom level.

On 13 June, the Confederation of School Trusts held its summer conference: Curriculum – Character – Conduct. The theme of the keynote address was also a triad of impressive-sounding abstractions: Mastery - Autonomy - Purpose. Meanwhile, at basecamp, teachers are immersed in the daily business: the spreadsheets of data; the representation of misdirected effort; sadly lacking in nuance, that manacles the profession.

How can we empower the profession?

The original version of Ed's article was entitled “Real change doesn’t come from politicians – it comes from within”. At its conclusion, Ed suggests: “Empower the profession.” But who is to do the empowering?

Perhaps the really significant conferences are the ones that don't happen on the Olympian heights – the ones with long traditions of bringing teachers together to celebrate their subjects, share good practice, exchange materials and attack the ongoing debates. These are the subject association conferences. And having just been re-inspired and re-invigorated by two days at the annual conference of NATE (the National Association for the Teaching of English), I am immensely grateful for what my subject association does for me.

It made me wonder what happens with other subject associations and their conferences, and I realised that I knew very little about them. So I checked:

In their two-day April event, enthusiasts of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics enjoyed an opening address on reasoning as a mathematical habit of mind at their conference entitled "Mathematics. Collaboration. Creativity". Who could resist such a combination of inclusivity and inventiveness, qualities rarely associated with a Stem discipline?

The Geographical Association held its annual conference over three days in April in Manchester; the Historical Association met for two days in May in Chester, and the Association for Physical Education will meet on the 8 and 9 July. Reports of the proceedings of these conferences, this year and in other years, make inspiring reading: they are full of ideas and enjoyment and enthusiasm.

And this is only a sample. Subject associations are not just a lifeline in times like these, they’re an informed voice and they provide ongoing support and inspiration to members. The most useful recent addition to the services provided by NATE is Illuminate, its monthly online newsletter. It has a 38 per cent click rate, compared with the average of 2 per cent for other bodies, and the materials, ideas and suggestions make their way into the classroom.

Genuinely inspiring keynote speeches

Forget the triads of abstractions. (Persistence – Humility – Resilience, anyone?) The best moments in subject association conference weekends are the inspiring keynote speeches. At NATE, Barbara Bleiman’s presentation argued most convincingly for learning conversations with pupils rather than filleted learning focused on small bits of text. She was by no means the only speaker to advocate returning writing to a more fluid form which genuinely engages with the issues in the text. Even awarding bodies are on a drive to eliminate the formulaic acronyms like PEETAL and AFOREST that get in the way of higher achievement.

Kate Clanchy’s presentation right at the end began with a confession that she didn’t use learning objectives and didn’t see the need for providing vocabulary lists, definitions and contextual points. Such practices were not only onerous for teachers but detract from the pupils’ opportunities to use their initiative.

From both presentations, the implications for planning are obvious: we are doing too much preparation in an attempt to stave off any possibility of pupils encountering the unexpected. In the process of enslaving ourselves, we aren’t doing our pupils any favours either.

These attitudes are not “the soft bigotry of low expectations” of either teachers or learners. It is far more demanding for learners to take the initiative than having their learning neatly and predictably sequenced in front of them. As participants in a learning conversation, they have to buy into the process. The metacognitive benefits for students far outweigh the confining over-detailed planning so beloved of the accountability system.

Even the awarding organisations are now leaning less towards promoting progress tests and more towards educational goals. Certainly, the OCR English consultative forum I attended in May used this as a focus for discussion. More enlightened practitioners have known this for years and avoided the requirement to over-think and over-plan.

Newly qualified teachers are more vulnerable to management pressure and are precisely the ones who need to attend conferences. Key changes from government and regulators may not percolate down to the classroom via existing hierarchical structures, nor is there any guarantee of enlightening conferences with influential speakers making any impact.

The effect on retention of teachers

Retention is about more than just reducing the unwanted mounds of data and wasted ink of deep marking, proliferating lesson-plans and schemes of work, perfectly-crafted curriculum models and plans. It’s about making a profession fit for teachers to work in. It’s time to let go of the (ultimately shallow) accountability system. We need to jettison it altogether.

Subject organisations have been around for years. They contain subject knowledge, expertise, pedagogical know-how, the latest relevant research that can have an impact in the classroom. With Ofsted’s focus on curriculum, they could be the ones within the teaching establishment best placed and best-resourced to truly bring about change to inspire a more intellectually-privileged profession.

Yvonne Williams is head of English at Portsmouth High School for Girls

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