Is your workload heavy because of the way you look at it?

20th November 2015 at 00:00
Teachers must see the value of duties, say groups tasked with solving the problem

Members of government-appointed groups investigating how to reduce teacher workload believe the burden could be eased if staff understood the benefits of what they have to do, TES can reveal.

Tomorrow it will be one year since the Department for Education’s Workload Challenge survey closed. Three working groups are now looking for solutions to the three issues that the survey suggested were causing teachers the biggest problems: marking, data management, and planning and resources.

Attempts to reduce teacher workload under previous governments have focused largely on removing specific tasks – such as creating classroom displays – and placing limits on hours. But the working groups appear to be taking a more philosophical approach.

Edison David, a member of the data management review group and head of school at Vauxhall Primary in south-east London, said staff could find the process of data management less taxing if they knew why they were doing it. “Sometimes teachers find it burdensome because they don’t understand the purpose of it,” he said.

‘Clear purpose’

Anna Jones, also a member of the data group, took the same view. “It’s about knowing there is a clear purpose that will help develop the children’s knowledge and understanding,” the teacher at South Farnham School in Surrey told TES. “It’s not burdensome if teachers think the data entry is useful.”

The results of a survey released today (see data panel) suggest that many teachers think differently, with data entry/analysis the second most cited task when teachers are asked what they shouldn’t have to do.

But Deborah Ajose, another member of the data group, said: “It comes down to questioning what you are doing but also understanding what you are doing.” The headteacher of Baylis Court Secondary School in Slough, Berkshire, added: “There needs to be much more CPD about data and data collection.”

The planning and resources working group is also examining the purpose behind the workload, according to chair Kathryn Greenhalgh. “It’s really important that everyone who works in the classroom has a workload that is focused towards children,” said the senior director of maths at the Outwood Grange Academies Trust in West Yorkshire.

But Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, rejected the idea that improving understanding or changing the purpose of work could reduce its burden. “That is not getting to the root of the problem,” she said. “The root of the problem is that there is too much data.

“The issue is not that teachers don’t understand data. It’s a much bigger problem than that and the understanding needs to start with school leaders.”

Change of culture

The working groups – which include teachers, headteachers, and Ofsted and union representatives – have met only twice so far. But there is a clear suggestion that cultural changes to classroom practice could ease teacher workload.

The data group is exploring “good” data management, while the planning and resources group is considering whether greater use of textbooks could reduce the need for teachers to devise their own resources. “There is a very small population who use textbooks at this time and we want to look at why this is,” Ms Greenhalgh said.

Her working group is also focusing on marking and is concerned about time-consuming practices such as “deep” or “triple marking”, where teachers give written feedback for work, children respond in writing and teachers respond again in writing. It has been told there is no large-scale reputable evidence showing how students may or may not benefit from such practices.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We want to ensure teachers can focus on what they do best: teaching and inspiring young people in the classroom…That is why we launched the Workload Challenge last year.

“We are now driving forward a package of measures to help address the root causes of teacher workload, including looking in more depth at the three biggest concerns that teachers raised.”

A teacher’s advice on how to cut your burden

Share the “good news”. It can be hard for teachers to manage their workload if they are browbeaten with dumb marking policies or excessive lesson planning requirements. One way to puncture bad school policy is sharing good practice on issues such as effective marking and planning. Scour social media and read up on the best evidence, then share it as widely as you can in your school.

Use checklists. A significant workload issue is the feeling of being swamped. Yes, the problem is real, but it can be exacerbated by how we feel about it. One way to overcome this is by using daily checklists, because these can give us a psychological boost. Here’s a simple suggestion: put your daily checklist on a Post-it note. If it doesn’t fit, you won’t have time to do it anyway.

Try symbol marking. Are you doing “triple impact marking” or eating double chocolate biscuits? Neither is likely to do much for your health. One clever marking strategy is using symbols instead of writing comments in each book, then designing a code for those symbols. You can shave precious time off your marking, while getting your students to think hard.

Get your five a day. We know that eating five daily portions of fruit and vegetables is healthy, but it can be just as healthy to use the idea for our marking. So instead of facing a procrastination-inducing pile of books, get a marking rota and consciously chip away at the tower of books with a five-a-day approach. Marking five books doesn’t feel so onerous, but done daily it will help you through.

Alex Quigley teaches at Huntington School in York and is the author of The Confident Teacher, to be published by Routledge in early 2016

What was the government’s Workload Challenge?

Thousands of teachers shared their experiences of unnecessary workload, plus their ideas for solutions, in a month-long Department for Education consultation hosted on the TES website last year.

The survey asked three open questions about unnecessary workload, what strategies were effective and what more could be done. By the time it closed on 21 November, it had generated more than 44,000 responses – the biggest DfE consultation of its kind in a decade.

The findings of the survey, alongside a series of commitments, were published in February to help tackle the root causes of unnecessary workload. The consultation revealed worries about the volume of work, the level of duplication, bureaucracy and the detail associated with tasks.

The Workload Challenge’s key pledges were:

Commitments by Ofsted not to change its handbook or framework during the school year except when absolutely necessary; to update its new “myths and facts” document stating what inspectors do and do not expect to see; and to make its handbook shorter and simpler from 2016 onwards so that schools can understand how inspectors reach their judgements.

To give schools a minimum lead time for significant changes to accountability, curriculum and qualifications, and to not make changes to qualifications in the academic year or during a course, unless there are urgent reasons for doing so.

To track teacher workload over the coming years by carrying out a large-scale survey in spring 2016, and every two years from then.

To share examples of successful practices used by schools to deal with teaching tasks that can cause unnecessary workload.

The DfE also launched the three working groups.

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