A modest proposal may yet cut red tape

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Steps to reduce the impact of Government bureaucracy on teachers are small, but in the right direction, says John Bangs.

Red tape to get a caning" promised the Department for Education and Employment press release in July. Three months on, the Government's working group on reducing the bureaucratic burden of teachers is nearing the conclusion of the first phase of its work.

Whether or not its proposals have indeed cut a swath through bureaucracy will be determined by teachers in the months to come. Nevertheless, for the first time a group of teacher-organisation representatives has sat down and started to evaluate the workload impact of Government policies on schools.

What were the expectations of the group? "Teachers have long complained of being deluged with paperwork," the Government said as a justification for the group.

Yet teachers have complained about more than paperwork; expressions of anger at being deluged with constant change and uninformed criticism consistently occur in surveys of teachers' views.

The key question for a number of its members is whether the group could influence the causes of bureaucracy at source, including Government policies which created excessive administration and workload. Here the DFEE has left the door barely ajar, indicating that the group's role is not to reconsider the justification of Government policy but to examine ways of making implementation less onerous. It has held out the possibility, however, of the group influencing new policy.

At the core of the group's work are the findings of a commissioned study of teachers' perceptions from Coopers Lybrand.

Perhaps it was predictable that its conclusions have centred on the need to establish "a common basic data set" so that schools do not have to report the same information to different agencies.

Time wasted on constructing bids for extra funds is criticised. Examination boards also come in for criticism both for their poor communications and duplicated information requests, as has GNVQ paperwork.

External agencies such as the courts and social services bring their own pressures on schools. The Data Protection Register is criticised for not being adapted to schools. Ad hoc requests for information from local education authorities and research organisations consume time.

These are identifiable external pressures resolvable by better systems. The group's recommendations for better use of information and communications technology for handling pupil data and purchasing goods and services fall into the same bracket.

At the centre of the Coopers Lybrand report, however, is a description of the pressure that schools feel as they struggle to comply with Government requirements.

The current Office for Standards in Education inspection arrangements and an overloaded national curriculum are sources of both stress and excessive workload. Yet conceding a fundamental review of OFSTED or urging an immediate reduction in the statutory primary curriculum has so far been ruled out of the group's remit.

As a consequence, the DFEE's proposals to the group that OFSTED rework its guidance to schools on maximum requirements, and that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority provide guidance on how to accommodate the increased focus on literacy and numeracy, occupy the zone of wishful thinking rather than that of practical reality.

And no purchase is yet available to the group on future Government initiatives such as target-setting. Up until now it has been impossible to get to grips with Government policies which have yet to be implemented.

Interestingly the net effect of the group's current remit is not to remove the policy issues from the table, but to define them; a process which will also sharpen critical analysis of the continuing breakneck roll-out of Government initiatives in the months to come.

The most fertile section of the group's work comes under the bracket of "schools' own management and administrative systems". Coopers Lybrand detect administrative and management systems "that are more burdensome than necessary", including the fact that "some teachers in the school studied regularly attend more than two after-hours meetings a week" (sic).

Some members of the group see these comments as evidence of the perfidy of headteachers, although it is beyond comprehension why headteachers should want to drive themselves and teachers into the ground. The reality is that both heads and teachers alike have felt unprotected against the apparently limitless expectations of external quality audits and information requests, whether those audits come from OFSTED, LEAs or any other organisations. Potentially the work of the group provides a possible template for a "minimum compliance" with Government requirements.

The group's draft report proposes that the DFEE and the QCA consider guidance to schools on reductions in: reporting requirements on pupil performance, post-OFSTED action planning, the content of management and development plans and lesson planning.

A suggested course of action from the DFEE is that ministers will ask headteachers, in consultation with their staff, to consider how they might use the guidance to reduce teachers' workload. A follow-up pilot study is planned in a number of schools to test whether the proposals have any impact.

Such modest proposals are overshadowed by the need for fundamental changes in several Government policies, yet the proposals represent a start despite the unlikely image of the DFEE riding over the hill to protect teachers.

The value of such an initiative will be lost, however, if ministers claim that the report is a great breakthrough. The National Union of Teachers remains as determined as ever to protect its members from the effects of any hasty and ill-thought out Government policies.

However, it would be extremely unwise to paint the working group's activities as a total failure; and completely naive to claim that high expectations have been dashed.

The very modesty of the group's proposals could lead to valuable targeted work on removing some bureaucratic irritants. Although its recommendations are small steps, they are steps leading in the right direction.

John Bangs is the assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers

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