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'Want to cut teacher workload? Cut the work'

Tech may help us to complete tasks more quickly - but is the task worth doing in the first place, asks Michael Tidd

How can we cut teacher workload?

Permit me, dear reader, to tell you of some of the foolish things I’ve done in my time, and then to ask you if you can spot the common theme. Perhaps then, I might save you just a small amount of your valuable time in the future.

Firstly, many years ago, as a relatively new teacher, I began to construct a question-level analysis grid in Excel. You know the sort of thing I mean? I set up rows and columns, with names and question numbers carefully broken down according to the mark scheme, and then spent a good couple of hours typing ones and zeroes into the grid in the hope that it would offer some insight into how I should next focus my teaching.

But then I went further. I decided that, if I knew what sort of questions the pupils were getting wrong, then I could automate the target-setting process for them. I’d never quite seen the point of setting targets for each child, but it was the new thing on the scene, and it seemed like the perfect tech solution: I’d type in all the ones and zeroes, and out would spurt some nicely printed labels with personalised targets for each pupil.

Then, of course, they stuck the labels in their books, and I carried on teaching what I’d already planned, with a few tweaks based on what I’d noticed while marking the tests. The targets looked beautiful, and I congratulated myself on a job well done. It was only later, as I realised that the targets never really got followed-up, that I understood what a waste it had been.

Reducing teacher workload

A few years later, older and wiser, I knew not to waste my time on the extra bit, and just stuck to the simple ones and zeroes. I was teaching a new sequence of maths over the year (we might call it mastery now, but that’s by the by) and when it came to the mid-year tests, things were not looking too rosy. So, diligently I took home my year team’s test papers and sat with my wife entering the data: her turning the pages and calling out ones and zeroes, me dutifully entering them into the spreadsheet.

What great conclusion did I reach from this analysis? The children hadn’t performed particularly well on the questions that required skills we hadn’t taught them yet. Insightful. It was another wasted task. That said, when it came to my pupil performance review (or whatever they were called then), I proudly showed off the spreadsheet and its conclusions, showing how I would teach the remaining content over the rest of the year, and we all went away happy.

Now, you might be with me on this already: the process of typing in every mark on a test paper probably isn’t worth it in most cases, especially not if you’re the one marking the papers: you’ll already have seen the errors that frustrate you because “they should know this”, and what better indication of where your teaching wasn’t good enough than that?

It’s why I’m wary when the government decides to invest in technology solutions to reduce workload. I thought the excel spreadsheet was saving me valuable time, when, in fact, it was just a time drain which told me nothing I didn’t know already from marking the tests. Technology may allow us to complete tasks more quickly, but the first question should be to ask whether the task is worth doing at all.

Which brings me back to something I’ve said time and again before, and stands repeating: if you want to reduce workload, then reduce work.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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