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What’s behind the teacher workload crisis? Assessment, assessment, assessment

We need a time-costs analysis in schools to show that much of the assessment we do is simply not worth the time we spend on it, says Daisy Christodoulou

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We need a time-costs analysis in schools to show that much of the assessment we do is simply not worth the time we spend on it, says Daisy Christodoulou

Again and again, investigations into problems with workload in English schools show that assessment is one of the main culprits.

The 2014 Workload Challenge found that the two tasks that teachers said caused the most unnecessary workload were data collection and marking. 

The DfE also record workload diaries, which show that time spent on assessment tasks is both high and increasing. 

For example, in the 2010 workload diary, primary teachers reported spending five hours per week on assessment tasks. By 2013, that had doubled to 10 hours.

Teacher workload worries

More recently, the removal of GCSE coursework has had a big impact on secondary workload. Although the changes are too recent to show up in workload diaries and surveys, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that while the amount of time spent marking coursework has obviously decreased, many schools are replacing coursework with more frequent mock exams, perhaps as many as three a year. 

As the new exams have more content than the old ones, the net effect of this will be to increase the time teachers spend marking. 

Why is this happening? 

One factor is clearly that there have been enormous changes in national assessments at both primary and secondary over the past few years, and significant changes like this are bound to lead to upheaval and uncertainty. 

Most schools have probably still not worked out the ideal internal assessment structure for the new exams, and have perhaps erred on the side of doing too many past papers, rather than too few.

What if we stopped setting as many summative graded exams, the type that take up a lot of pupil and teacher time? Would it have a negative impact if pupils only did two graded assessments a year, instead of three or six? Only one full mock in Year 11, instead of two or three?

Reduced assessment, reduced teacher workload

Many schools would be reluctant to reduce these numbers on the grounds that such assessments help pupils to improve. And of course, it is true that the experience of sitting a mock exam and getting the feedback does help pupils to improve. 

But the real question is not whether doing a mock exam helps pupils to improve. It is: does it lead to enough improvement given the enormous amounts of pupil and teacher time it absorbs? 

A full GCSE English language and literature mock takes up seven-and-a-half hours of student time – and at least 40 hours of each class teacher’s time. One mock may well be valuable and necessary. 

Does the second one add enough extra value given the time it takes? Could we find something else for pupils and teachers to do with that time that would lead to even more improvement?

Unnecessary tasks

If we return to the Workload Challenge, we can see that some of the unnecessary tasks identified by teachers do not add any value to teaching and learning. 

Spending time on the over-elaborate formatting of spreadsheets, for example, adds no value – and so we can easily stop doing this. 

But there are relatively few of these kinds of quick wins. The harder challenge is to identify tasks which probably do add a little bit of value, but do so at a cost in time that is wildly disproportionate. These tasks are dangerous and deceptive: we feel as though they are helping pupils to improve, but in reality they are taking time away from activities that could lead to much bigger gains.

Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking and the author of Making Good Progress? and Seven Myths about Education. She tweets @daisychristo

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