Ditch the paperwork and get a life

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Bureaucracy gives birth to itself. So kill it, says Andy Stanley

Are you reading this on a Sunday with reports or a grid for weekly planning in front of you, while your non-teaching friends are in the pub? According to the NUT, the average teacher works around 50 hours a week and new teachers work longer. Cheer up, though - heads work 63 hours. It's as if a whole profession has been awarded a sort of Asbo, only it's one where you're told to stay in and be anti-social.

Paperwork and bureaucracy are prime suspects for this lack of a life, and the increased use of IT means more bureaucracy - more statistics can be collected and so you have more data to enter. Forget the paper-free workplace - all that means is official bodies just stick their important documents on a website and you waste time finding them and printing them, probably at home, at your own expense.

The other justification for paperwork is "accountability". Schools have to deliver value for money and you have to prove it to Ofsted. A lesson comes and goes, but a lesson plan lasts forever.

Then there are reports, minutes of meetings, performance management paperwork, your professional development portfolio, exam admin, coursework admin, procedures, policies, risk assessments and, now, school self-evaluation. Paperwork for school trips often takes longer to fill in than actually going on a day-trip to France. Alicia, a secondary NQT, describes her school's procedure for behaviour incidents, which involves forms in triplicate which split up, like characters in Scary Movie, go wandering round the school and are never found again until it's too late.

Believe it or not, the Government says it is worried about bureaucracy, so, surprise, surprise, the mandarins have set up two working groups to combat it - the Implementation Review Unit for schools and the Bureaucracy Review Group for further education. The intention is good though - the IRU has tried very hard to rein in the paperwork burden and take Ofsted and the Department for Education and Skills to task, and your school will have an IRU poster that gives two forthright pieces of advice.

First, check yourself whether a new initiative or demand for information is statutory or optional. Second, decide which optional requests are worth your while - weigh up the time it will take against the benefit your school will get.

The message here is clear - only do it to help the class in front of you, to avoid getting sacked, or to avoid being sued.

In contrast, the BRG for FE has failed miserably. Gemma, now in FE after an NQT year in school, is astounded at the additional work: the course reviews, the auditors coming in examining policies and procedures, the self-evaluation process, the risk management system, and the tracking of additional learner support. "It's pointless; half the time the paper is checked but not whether something actually happened. If it's documented, then apparently it did happen. I never imagined my creative writing course at uni would be so useful," she said.

Don't believe the paperwork is generated by your leadership team, though.

This is not necessarily so. Dr Chris Nicholls, a secondary head, is concerned that new teachers are "immersed in a paper culture from the moment they start training. They over-plan and over-record".

Many heads think new teachers are over-dependent on paper, and are not as adaptable and creative as they could be. Planning is viewed as an end in itself and, according to Alicia, student teachers "are scared of changing their plans because you can't guarantee observers will understand".

Dr Nicholls, however, wants professionalism - not paper evidence, rigid planning and written evaluations:

"Teachers need to accept that you can't write a lesson plan for every child every time; an observation shouldn't require a full planning exercise every time, and follow-up often needs only to be three action points based on what has been seen."

Unfortunately, the message doesn't get through to many primary schools where teachers are submerged by daily plans, weekly plans, medium-term plans and yearly plans.

Bureaucracy brain-washing starts in college where students spend ages gathering evidence, then get even more for the NQT year.

Sean, a maths teacher, thinks it's heavy going but useful. It reassures him that he has actually prepared himself for the job by covering things he might not otherwise have bothered with.

Alicia's attitude, on the other hand, is more contemptuous. "I had three big PGCE lever arch files which proved only that I was good at filing." For the NQT year, she's developed "the art of the blag, faking evidence to meet targets and waxing lyrical for hours, because after all they want you to pass".

As she says, "you can't do the job properly and do the paperwork. If you're doing the paperwork properly, you're not probably preparing well. And that's the point - only take trouble over what really helps your class."


* If you need to find something on the DfES, Ofsted or LSC websites, remember their search engines are rubbish. Go to Google and use their Advanced Search to search the websites.

* When you are asked to plan or write something, ask whether it helps you teach or a pupil to learn. If it doesn't, avoid doing it.

* When asked to do something you suspect is merely pointless bureaucracy, mention at least two other things you have to do immediately, and ask what your priority is. If the new task isn't number one, it will probably disappear within a day or so.

* Make your workload rich in learning and low in marking.

* Do not respond to official surveys unless you are paid for your time.

* Before starting any in-school initiatives, check there isn't a government plan in the pipeline because what they eventually tell you to do will be different.

* If an unavoidable initiative comes along, ask your colleagues which old initiative should be quietly abandoned.

* Don't meet colleagues to plan - just take one bit each, store them on the whiteboards or intranet, and live with each other's plans.

* Avoid coursework for your classes if an exam is available. If your pupils object, tell them they'll thank you for it.

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