'When teachers spend more time on planning than the teaching, we know we have a problem'

Let's agree to this when it comes to workload: 'If it doesn't improve the lot of the pupil then don't do it', writes one former headteacher

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When it comes to the school holidays, most people imagine their teacher friends lolling on the sofa. The reality is, that many will, in fact, be catching up with work. The list of jobs to do is endless: data inputting, lesson planning, catching up reading is naming just a few.  

And so, as we head back into the second half-term, many will be fretting over workload. Can it be handled better, when so many aspects of the school’s moving parts demand a teacher's time?

It is an important question on a personal wellbeing level, but also on a system level – especially if we hope to ever solve the recruitment crisis.

There has been a great deal of rhetoric on this issue, but far too little on what we should do about it. Over time, we have reached the intolerable situation in which teachers work 54 hours a week and school leaders 60. These figures are probably on the conservative side as they were provided by the Department of Education itself.

Workload decisions

If we are serious as a profession about this issue, we need to highlight the areas in which we are doing too much, and allow staff themselves to decide what to do about it. This includes all staff, from leaders to teaching assistants and dinner ladies – workload affects everyone.

So, how about this as a starting point?

  • Teachers are teaching far too much. Each hour in front of the class brings another hour preparing and responding to it.
  • In teaching, we seem to invent meetings for the sake of it. And of course, each meeting must be essential, well-planned in both content and the staff who should be there.
  • Why are we creating so much data, and with it, the spreadsheets that haunt our dreams? What happened to a professional opinion?
  • We plan more for it to be analysed by management, rather than the needs of the pupils themselves. This means that we lose teacher spontaneity, creativity and ad hoc decision-making. When teachers spend more time on planning than the teaching, we know we have a problem.
  • We mark too much, for the satisfaction of senior leaders and parents. Research shows the most effective form of marking is the engagement and debate with the pupil in real-time.
  • In regards to the curriculum, we've spent far too much time reinventing the wheel. Why is it considered bad practice to do what we did last year if it works?
  • Far too much of a teacher's continued personal development is irrelevant to them. Do Year 6 teachers need to know how a Reception class works?
  • Let's not forget form-filling. We write down too much at the detriment of face to face time.


This is, of course, just a list of many of the major issues.

The question is: how can we cut down the wasted time in each area? It’s not that complicated. Let’s agree to live by this: 'If it doesn't improve the lot of the pupil then don't do it'.

It sounds too simple...perhaps it is.

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were "outstanding" across all categories. To read more of Colin's articles, visit his back catalogue

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