A case of one step too many

18th December 2009 at 00:00

It was Cyril Northcote who came up with the adage known as Parkinson's Law in 1955: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

I've been thinking about this a great deal at recent meetings with teachers (and managers) who complain that their time is taken up with trivial bureaucratic tasks.

What is it about us that we have created bureaucratic processes which overload our system? The first reason is we often "over-engineer" our systems. Over-engineering is when we construct something beyond the tolerances required to fulfil the object's task. For example, we build a bridge which can carry a weight 10 times heavier than anything that it will be required to carry. The associated costs in additional materials and construction time can be regarded as a waste.

And so it often is in educational bureaucracies that we develop solutions to problemsissues which go beyond what is required to solve the problem. Perhaps because we don't trust each other?

The second characteristic of our system is that we often create a solution to meet a time-specific problem. For example, we establish a meeting of people to address a particular problem. We solve the problem that generated the cause for the meeting but the meetings continue because we don't have the confidence to stop.

The first thing we must do to reduce this bureaucracy is to reflect on our practice. This is not because we want to stop doing everything, but because we want to spend our time doing those things which add value to the central purpose of our job - making a positive difference to children's lives.

Part of that process must be to reflect on the cost benefit. I'm not encouraging a "know the cost of everything and value of nothing" approach, but simply one which works out what something costs in terms of time, money (often related to time) and associated value. For example, a weekly 30-minute meeting of principal teachers in an average secondary, with senior management team members, equates to pound;18,000-pound;20,000 a year. Such a meeting may have been instituted for valid reasons a few years ago, but has continued beyond its purpose and value.

So, having identified some processes of dubious value, what next? There seem to be two alternatives 1. STOP doing it (does the sky fall in?); 2. REDESIGN the process, that is, do it "just well enough" (rather than over- engineer) - or come up with an alternative solution which streamlines and simplifies it.

The first solution cannot be left to personal preference, unless it is a bureaucratic process which you have instituted as part of your personal behaviour. However, a key stage in such reflection is to try to understand why we do things in a particular way - what is the purpose of the process? (I would suggest that a bit of research into the history of when and why it was introduced can be helpful).

Having identified the process, consider the risk of stopping doing it. For example, would stopping doing it put children's health and safety at risk? This might sound like a recipe for anarchy, but the key is a collective analysis and shared decision-making process.

If stopping is not an option, perhaps the process could be redesigned? As before, the starting point should be the purpose of the process. It could no longer be relevant. That may be the case with some of our processes which have been introduced at a time when economic considerations did not feature in the decision-making process.

Again, the key to redesigning processes is to see it as a collective process. Remember, one hour saved a week by every teacher in a school of 50 teachers over a year is equivalent to pound;75,000-pound;80,000 - or two teachers. Now that would make a difference. Good luck!

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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