Ministers reveal plans to end workload crisis

6th February 2015 at 00:00
But union says high-stakes culture means efforts could be in vain

Teachers will no longer be subjected to major changes to Ofsted inspections or government policy during the academic year, TES can reveal, as ministers bid to cut excessive working hours.

The move, which is being called a "new deal" for teachers, will spell the end of curriculum and qualifications reform in the middle of courses.

The Department for Education was inundated with tens of thousands of responses to its Workload Challenge, which was launched by education secretary Nicky Morgan and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in October. Ms Morgan had raised concerns that teachers were "too tired, too stressed and too anxious" to do their jobs effectively.

Staff said that major reforms being introduced mid-year was one of the biggest contributing factors to long hours. Examples include the controversial decision to scrap speaking and listening from English GCSEs and the ruling that only first attempts at GCSE exams would count towards school league tables.

The English Baccalaureate performance measure was also introduced during the school year, even though the reform placed significant pressure on schools to overhaul their timetables and subject options.

Writing exclusively in this edition of TES, Ms Morgan and Mr Clegg describe the dedication of teachers as "inspirational", but they add that "far too many are working far too hard, for far too long - and it's simply not sustainable".

However, their plans to lighten the burden on school staff have been unveiled in the same week that prime minister David Cameron has called for high-stakes maths tests for 11-year-olds and admitted that schools would face real-terms budget cuts should the Conservatives win the general election.

Under the Workload Challenge action plan, Ofsted will provide regular updates on what inspectors are looking for in order to debunk myths. No changes to Ofsted's inspection framework or handbook will be introduced during an academic year "except when absolutely necessary", Ms Morgan and Mr Clegg write.

The same approach will be taken to curriculum and qualification reforms, but this "protocol" will be overridden if there are "exceptional circumstances".

Leadership training will be reviewed to ensure that headteachers and senior leaders can better mentor their staff, and "major surveys" of teachers will take place every two years to keep tabs on their workload. Ms Morgan and Mr Clegg also say they want to make it easier for teachers to share best practice, lesson plans and resources.

In teachers' responses to the Workload Challenge, the "same themes came up again and again", the ministers write. "Pressure from outside is a major factor - pressure from school leaders, from Ofsted (whether real or perceived) and, yes, from government.

"It goes without saying that no school leader, inspector or politician ever purposefully creates unnecessary or unproductive work. But too often that's what happens, and too few teachers feel they have the tools and support they need to cope."

Ms Morgan and Mr Clegg say the response to the Workload Challenge highlights the burden that many teachers are struggling with. "No education system can be better than its teachers, and no teacher can perform at their best when they're so tired they can't think straight," they write. "Today's plans offer every teacher in the country a new deal."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said that any attempt to improve working conditions was to be welcomed. But he added that the government would not get to the root cause of excessive workload until it changed its "education philosophy".

"If you are going to stick with high-stakes testing and high-stakes accountability, then you can only mitigate the problem, you can't properly address it," Mr Hobby said. "There is no indication that they are going to move away from that model. If you are raising accountability at the same time as cutting money going to schools in real terms, then that's only going to increase teachers' workload."

Dame Joan McVittie, headteacher of Woodside High School in North London, said the proposals had come "too late" for the students at her school who took their GCSEs last summer. The proportion achieving A*-C grades in English fell by 18 percentage points after the decision to remove speaking and listening elements.

However, she welcomed the pledge to stop similar situations arising again. "It's an excellent decision," Dame Joan said. "It makes life much easier for teachers and students."

She added that it was essential to give pupils as much time as possible to adjust to any new policies. "These changes don't impact on middle-class kids so much, but for those children who come from deep levels of deprivation it can be the difference between a D and a C grade," she added.

Read Nicky Morgan and Nick Clegg's response to the Workload Challenge

Key pledges to ease the burden on staff

  • Minimum lead times for government reforms: no big changes will be made during the academic year or mid-course.
  • No changes will be made to the Ofsted inspection framework or handbook mid-year.
  • There will be greater engagement with headteachers and teachers over the practical implications of reform.
  • Ofsted will continually review its "clarification for schools" document.
  • There will be shorter inspections for good schools.
  • An evidence base of good classroom practice will be published.
    • A teacher's view: `We're far from free, but so is Nicky Morgan'

      In my experience, people called "Nicky", both men and women, are invariably spirited, active and upbeat. The education secretary is no exception and I was not at all surprised when one of her first decisions was to ask teachers how she could help. A Nicky instinctively does that kind of thing.

      But the problem for Nicky Morgan is that she is trapped in a completely non-Nicky situation. I sense that she would love to set teachers free from their shackles and inject a freer and more creative spirit into schools. But the reality is that she has been handed a rather quaint script - a 1950s pastiche - and told to run with it.

      This week illustrates her situation perfectly. She doubtless hopes that her response to the Workload Challenge will encourage a thawing of relations between teachers and government. But just prior to the announcement, the prime minister pulled the rug by delivering another highly insulting "sort it out or we'll turn you into academies" speech.

      David Cameron followed this up by repeating that devious little government claim that the schools budget would "remain protected" should the Conservatives win the general election. All who work in a state school (or who have lost their job at one, owing to the cuts) know this to be a gross misrepresentation.

      So, far from inducing a thaw, Nicky Morgan and Nick Clegg's response to the survey arrived in sub-zero temperatures. It is indicative of the fundamental problem with the Workload Challenge: the Workload Context.

      Without such a negative context teachers might be a little more generous towards the proposals. The decision to consult headteachers more thoroughly over the practicalities of reform is plainly sensible - even if many stable horses have already bolted.

      Welcome, too, is the idea of Ofsted no longer encouraging "faddism" in the classroom - even though, with no hint of irony, the inspectorate has now flagged up "music" as something it will be looking at more closely.

      Similarly, plans to give more notice of forthcoming changes and to research how to avoid drowning teachers in data tasks would surely earn applause, were it not for the aforementioned context. And by "context" I do not just mean the backcloth of empty and often rude rhetoric.

      I am instead thinking of those three great scars on the educational landscape, which cause school leaders and teachers to feel such immense and undue pressure, and to work those excessive hours: league tables; an inspection system based on fear rather than formative support; and a similarly stress-inducing, unfair and unworkable performance-pay system.

      The whole landscape must change for teachers to feel positively about workload - and, incidentally, for children to take more responsibility for how they perform. This should be Nicky's next challenge.

      Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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