Crushed by a paper weight

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Harvey McGavin examines the increasing burden on schools of administrative paperwork.

Why do people become teachers? The long summer holidays? A sense of vocation? The satisfaction of helping young people make their way in the world?

It's a fair bet that no one ever took up teaching to fulfil a love of form-filling and report-writing. But paperwork has become an ever-present factor in the day-to-day running of a school, especially in the past 10 years.

Most teachers probably think of paperwork the way travelling salesmen think of traffic jams - an occupational hazard that holds you up, extends the working day and stops you doing your job. And it seems the higher you go up the career ladder, the worse it gets.

Rob Whish was so astonished by the amount of paperwork that landed on his desk after he became head of Tidcombe primary school in Tiverton, Devon, 18 months ago, that he began to log it all. In his first year, he received 22 major documents, on homework policies, Ofsted inspections, home-school agreements, special needs, the National Grid for Learning, the New Opportunities Fund, target-setting, self-evaluation, data analysis, and more - much more So he decided to record how long each document took him to read, what he had to do as a result and how long it took him. But keeping track of it all soon became an overwhelming task.

"I was getting it on three levels. First, stuff from central government. Then the local authority would interpret that and send out its advice. Then our local cluster of schools would go through it and generate even more paperwork.

"These were fundamentally good initiatives. But the rate of change has become a problem. In the rush to change we sometimes lose sight of what we are here to do - work with youngsters and give them a broad, balanced education."

The scale of Rob's workload came home to him when he was organising an evening for parents and governors. "I put out all the documents I had received the previous term. I thought I could display them all on a PE bench, but I needed three lunch tables.

"It rocked one or two of them. I remember explaining that I could spend all my time reading documentation and having no real interaction with the kids."

But Rob managed to make an educational activity out of the reams of red tape. He got a class to weigh it. One month's paperwork weighed in at 41 kilograms. "About the same as one of my Year 6s," he laughs.

But it's not all bad news. At least one organisation is grateful for all this paperwork: Bristol University's school of education's document summarising service trawls through hundreds of reports each year, and sends out abbreviated versions to more than 300 clients, most of them local education authorities.

Elizabeth McNess, who runs the service, says it sifts through documents likely to help heads, governors and local authorities, then writes detailed summaries to make them "more easily digestible".

She says: "The idea was born out of the 1988 Education Act, when documentation went into schools by the lorryload." Nowadays the documentation "comes in fits and starts, but it certainly hasn't reduced".

As you would exect of someone who relies on such bodies for her living, Ms McNess has a healthy respect for the DfEE, QCA, TTA, Ofsted and their outpourings. "We couldn't replace the documents, because they have to be very precise in their language. But perhaps they could be written in a more accessible way," she says.

Any new government brings new laws, which means more consultation, more guidelines and more frameworks for implementation. In short, more paperwork. But the present government came to power saying it would cut "unnecessary bureaucracy". It put out circular 298, Reducing the Bureaucratic Burden in Schools, soon after it was elected. Since then, according to the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers - which has campaigned on the issue under the slogan "let teachers teach" - things have got worse.

In March last year, a survey of NASUWT members showed that the number of routine admin tasks had increased in 23 per cent of cases, fallen in just 14 per cent and was unchanged in 59 per cent.

A recent Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet, Plans, Plans, Plans, highlighted the problem. Its author, Andrew Povey, chair of Surrey County Council's education committee, estimated that to consult, consider, draft review and revise the 17 plans issued to local education authorities since Labour came to power would take one person almost 1,200 years.

The Government's answer to these criticisms has been that much of it is a legal requirement. "There would be just as much criticism if we did not consult schools," says Education Secretary David Blunkett.

His practical solution, launched last November, is the Bureaucracy Cutting Toolkit. At more than 100 pages it was bound to attract criticism for adding to a problem it was supposed to help solve. Rather temptingly, it suggests one way of cutting down on bureaucracy would be simply to "stop doing things". "But," it warns, "this is potentially high risk" and says it should certainly not be used where you are asked to submit information that is required by law.

Instead, it suggests shifting administrative jobs such as photocopying, exam administration or collecting money from pupils to clerical staff - and has provided pound;80 million for the purpose. Examples of best practice include a school where dinner ladies became exam invigilators.

But the NASUWT survey found that teachers most disliked target-setting, lesson-planning, Ofsted inspections, the literacy strategy and meetings - integral parts of a teacher's weekly routine that cannot easily be farmed out.

Schools minister Estelle Morris believes "teachers should be free to teach, not slaves to paperwork". But each new initiative seems to further shackle teachers to their desks. Until the problem is tackled, for teachers like Rob Whish it will continue to be a case of so many circulars, so little time.

"There is such a lot of good stuff in there," he says. "It's positive and it's helpful. I just wish I had had some of it when I started teaching in 1969. But I want to do the best I can for the kids in this school, and sometimes I feel there are obstacles - put there by the people who are trying to help us."

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