‘Unsustainable’ workload for teachers and pupils

13th May 2016 at 00:00
workload is unsustainable, says report
Government review acknowledges huge pressure caused by new qualifications

The new qualifications have led to an “unintended and unsustainable level of work for learners and teachers”, the government group set up to review the new exams has admitted in a report.

The yet-to-be-published document, the contents of which TESS is able to reveal today, stresses “the need to take action to address the very real pressures on teachers”.

But the report warns that bowing to union demands to suspend mandatory unit assessments would mean that the “credibility and integrity” of Scotland’s school qualifications would be compromised. Pupils, it says, would be left unable to pass their courses.

The report has been produced by a review group set up by education secretary Angela Constance in January to look at concerns over excessive workload associated with the new qualifications (see “Why the review?”, right).

The document spells out the problems around suspending mandatory unit assessments, which are carried out internally by teachers.

“In particular, the Scottish Qualifications Authority confirmed that, given the design of the existing qualifications, if units were not achieved it would not be able to certificate qualifications in 2016-17,” it says.

The review group adds that if unit assessments were suspended a pupil who failed the N5 exam would no longer have the fall-back position of gaining the internally assessed N4.

Experts have stressed that a solution must be found to the problem of additional workload.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, called on the government to “deal with staffing issues properly”, saying: “Teachers who are burdened with mind-numbing bureaucracy cannot do their job well.”

The EIS teaching union has even threatened industrial action over the findings of the report, saying that the suggestions fell “far short of an acceptable solution to the issue of excessive workload”.

The report makes no mention of upping teacher numbers. However, it does set out a series of actions to be undertaken by the SQA and Education Scotland and by councils.


Urgent action

A review of the assessment requirements in every subject under the new qualifications is now being carried out by the SQA, it says. More than 40 schools will be visited and findings will be reported at the end of the month.

The SQA has also committed to reviewing its quality assurance processes – designed to ensure that the new qualifications are delivered consistently by teachers across the country – by October. And next year, random sampling of unit assessments will be suspended.

Teachers have complained in the past that moderation information takes too long to compile and that it sometimes has to be submitted several times because of a lack of clarity over what is required. The report also promises guidance from Education Scotland to help reduce over-assessment, and more professional development, so that teachers have “time and space to develop their practice”.

It says: “The group recognised that there was a need to support professional development and build capacity in the system.

“What was needed was appropriate support and engagement from the national bodies, backed up by support at local authority level, to make sure teachers have time and space to develop their practice.”

The report adds: “At present, aspects of the introduction of new National Qualifications have involved an unintended and unsustainable level of work for learners and teachers. The Scottish government, Education Scotland, the SQA, teachers, schools, colleges and local authorities all have an important role to play in reducing this workload.”


A tale of two subjects: ‘a better system’ vs ‘horrendous’


When the new National Qualifications were introduced, teachers felt “overwhelmed with workload”, most of which “appeared to be assessment-driven”, says English teacher and faculty head Debbie Gardner.

And the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s expectations, she adds, were “difficult to decipher”.

But now the new National Qualifications are entering their third year, Ms Gardner, who is faculty head of language and literacy at Garnock Academy in North Ayrshire, says that she would hate to go back to the old system. She says that she has learned to work assessment into what she is “naturally teaching anyway” and that she finds the new qualifications for English, modern languages and media “far more skill-led and far more relevant”.

Ms Gardner adds: “Once you get that balance right, it’s actually a better system.”


A group of maths teachers – also based at a school in the west of Scotland – is far less sanguine. They point out that the old Standard grade courses taken in S4 had no internally assessed element and claim that the three unit assessments at N4 and N5 have now led to “an increase in workload”. But there has been no increase in teachers’ preparation and correction time to compensate.

At Higher level, unit assessments were not new but teachers had been paid to mark the investigation required under the old Higher; this is no longer the case.

Workload issues can be further compounded depending on how many courses a school allows pupils to take in the senior phase.

The burden being placed by the “unthinking SQA” on students is “horrendous”, the teachers conclude.

Key recommendations


The review group’s report acknowledges “the need to take action to address the very real pressures on teachers”.

It rejects suspending unit assessments for 2016-17.

It rejects addressing any duplication between course and unit assessments in 2016-17.

The SQA plans to review the assessment requirements of every subject and report by the end of the month.

The SQA plans to review moderation processes by October.

The SQA will suspend the random sample element of unit verification for 2016-17.

Education Scotland will publish guidance to help reduce over-assessment.

There should be more professional development for teachers.

Why the review?


In January, after coming under pressure from the teaching unions, education secretary Angela Constance announced the creation of an expert group to advise on improvements to assessment and qualifications.

A consultative ballot by the EIS union at the end of last year had shown overwhelming support for industrial action over the new qualifications. Out of a turnout of 46 per cent of members, 93 per cent voted for industrial action. However, the union put industrial action on hold until the review group reported.

The group was chaired by learning minister Alasdair Allan, and was asked to make recommendations on issues such as internal assessment and teacher workload that could be considered by ministers ahead of the 2016-17 school year.

The final report was completed on 21 April but has yet to be published.

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