The workload deal? It's a terrible idea

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Patricia Denison answers your leadership questions

I am an experienced headteacher running a happy, popular school. What we do works. The last thing we want is another initiative telling us what to do.

But already, despite the fact that I have not set out to attract attention to the workload agreement, some of the younger staff are beginning to ask about non-contact time.

Our budget cannot wear it. This workload initiative is misguided, impractical, and is beginning to unsettle and divide our team. When will schools be offered the chance to opt out of this, in the way that some have opted out of other statutory requirements?

The simple answer to your question is that schools cannot and will not be able to ignore this national agreement. It has been agreed between the Government, employers and unions and is already reflected in teachers' contracts. It reflects the fact that something has to be done about increasing workload. We cannot do more, but we may be able to do things differently.

Is your antipathy to the agreement based on an objection to its principles? Probably not. None of us would argue against wanting the best learning and teaching, recognition and development of support staff, and a commitment to innovation and flexibility. But many heads, even though they embrace these principles, are overwhelmed by budget constraints. This is a real issue for the Government, and we must continue to press it on this.

I suspect, though, that your real objections are not primarily based on financial constraints.

I wonder if your resistance may be about a desire to hold on to the status quo. You say your way "works". Does that mean there is no room for improvement? Or does it simply mean that everyone is simply happy with the current situation and therefore says "no" to the very idea of change?

You say that there is unease among staff. This cannot effectively be dealt with by blunt "can't happen" statements. Resentment will grow underground, then surface with ferocity.

You might want, instead, regardless of the workload agreement, to start looking at the ways you work and judge if they really are as effective as they could be. The process itself should be energising and exhilarating, because it is creative. The responses you get from pupils, staff, parents and governors may challenge your assumptions.

Don't attempt to conduct such an inquiry on your own. Be open, honest and courageous. There are good facilitators who can do the job for you, and often enable staff whose instinct it is to resist new ideas to open up. But if you feel you can't afford that luxury, you can create a team from within the school to do it. Include all groups: pupils, even the youngest, will make significant contributions.

I'm guessing such an inquiry will

* find real evidence of success, which you will be able to celebrate;

* shake assumptions, warranting further investigation;

* uncover a desire in the school to do some things differently, and to look at expectations, and processes with new eyes.

This desire has to come from within. Once you've got that you can achieve anything. Your team, having conducted their initial inquiry, might now ask staff and pupils to identify one thing that would improve the quality of their life in school. Their answers should spark creative brainstorming, about alternatives to the current organisation - the more radical, the better.

Your resistance to change will come in useful when exploring how these ideas might be turned into reality: some options will doubtless cost money.

Many, though, will just require an organisational change - and the will to challenge the "we've always done it this way" mindset.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email it to

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