Cut and folded to perfection
We're half a term into the school year and the pace is picking up, with many secondaries in the thick of open days and evenings.
Staff at my school, Matthew Arnold in Oxford, have spent the past month reviewing our performance in public examinations and setting targets for each department, class and student. Now the hard work begins. There is coursework to do, tests to be set and marked, homework to be checked, lessons to plan - that's without the reports, meetings and evening commitments.
All of us are rightly concerned with teacher workload. But there is an alternative. Let's use a mythical, but exemplary, school department - call it the origami department. It's the largest in the school and has a heavy agenda. The head of origami, Shen, is concerned about the amount of work that has to be done. But he has taken some of the best practice his department applies to pupils and used it to rethink the way they work.
Many of us spend time planning GCSE coursework. We have a scheme of work that sets out how much time should be spent on each topic. Shen compiles a calendar and identifies the hot spots, which enables the department to see what needs to be done. Then the work is divided up and agreed. The dominant feature is that everyone works together.
When Tougei, an experienced teacher, writes a lesson plan, he emails it to the others. Nagata puts together PowerPoint presentations that send lessons, with resources, into teachers' inboxes at the touch of a button. Staff use their shared area on the network, so instead of printing out the lesson plan they have their laptops in their rooms; after the lesson is evaluated the plan is updated. Shen can monitor the quality of teaching efficiently because he knows the lessons are well planned and the resources meet an agreed standard.
Sasebo is good at writing test papers that match the assessment objectives. Again, she writes them on the laptop and puts them in the shared area. There's a spreadsheet with the names of the students, and the administrator enters test results. The tests have to be marked, but nobody finds this onerous as the mark scheme is so clearly linked to the assessment objectives from the scheme of work.
Not all the students are working well. A few are misbehaving and parents need to be told. The department has a letters template on its network. All the teacher has to do is write about the errant child and email it to the office for a personalised letter to be produced.
Meetings are shortened because the department has a conference area where documents and papers are circulated in advance. The important business can be decided quickly because everyone has had time to think about the implications beforehand. No one has to type minutes because the voice device on the laptop records the contributions; some editing is required, but that doesn't take long. The head is always informed because the circulation group includes the whole leadership team.
The school has invested wisely in ICT and made it work through focused training. Everyone has his or her own ICT learning plan. Staff are proficient typists, all can do mail merge, and the ICT co-ordinator organises individual and group sessions to make sure it works. She has a team of people who service the ICT facilities - they have an hour a day when they check printers for paper and ink, tidy the network, organise the files.
Shen meets regularly with each member of his team to review performances. The department works closely despite being spread across the school. These meetings last half an hour; the data on classes is to hand, the contribution to the department is evident. The meeting is summarised in a few sentences and the next task agreed.
Is this possible? It starts from the idea that we can work better by doing simple jobs. We plan the work of our classes to ensure that they can cope with what they have to do; team leaders need to be proactive about the work of their team. By making sure schemes of work have "assessment" in big letters, teachers ensure the focus for lesson planning, learning objectives and activity is at the fore. We teach what we assess.
But the real progress is in working together, using the technology that's available to work on joint projects; trusting someone else to produce a lesson plan that everyone can use; thinking of how tasks can be split up; having quality standards that all agree to; providing training to enable everyone to work together. This is about working smarter, not harder.
Susan Tranter is deputy head at Matthew Arnold secondary school, Oxford