Why is Ofsted blaming school leaders for workload?

Ofsted is asking staff to evaluate leaders on workload. But what do inspectors know about the issue, asks Michael Tidd

Teacher workload: Ofsted seems to be pointer the finger of blame at school leaders - but maybe it should look closer to home, says Michael Tidd

For years, Ofsted asked parents about homework as part of its parent surveys when inspections rolled around. Often, schools found that it was one of the areas where they scored most poorly. 

The problem was that it was hard to unpick exactly what the issue was, because the question was rather vague. Asked whether children received “appropriate homework for their age”, parents who wanted more homework were lumped in with those who wanted less.

So, often the percentage of apparently disgruntled parents was just proof of the adage that you can’t please all the people all of the time.

With the rollout of Ofsted's new inspection framework, the question has been dropped: presumably a recognition of the fact that it didn’t really provide any useful information. At the same time, an updated staff survey has been introduced, and has opened up a whole new minefield.

Teacher workload: Who is to blame?

Along with the usual questions about improvement since the last inspection and pupil safety, there’s a new question linked to workload. It’s an area of keen interest for all of us in the profession, so the temptation to make it an Ofsted focus is a clear one. But is this really the best way to tackle the issue?

I’ll be clear: there is a workload issue in the profession, and I have said before that I think school leaders bear at least as much responsibility for it as Ofsted or the Department for Education. But that doesn’t mean that we can lay the blame entirely at their door. Yet that’s the risk with the new question in the staff survey.

Teachers are asked to state how far they agree with the statement, “Leaders and managers take workload into account when developing and implementing policies and procedures, so as to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on staff.” But, often, it’s not the new policies and procedures that create the workload: it’s the combination of all the old ones.

There is one quite significant exception to that rule: the new policies and procedures that are being added in schools right now…because of Ofsted. 

New Ofsted expectations

In primary schools particularly, the shift from the old framework to the new is a complete transformation of expectations about how schools work. I happen to think it’s for the better, but there’s no denying that schools are being asked to think in a completely different way about curriculum. And that creates a workload all of its own.

There are those who have long argued that Ofsted should take workload into account when reaching its judgements, but the consequences of that clamour may not be quite what people hoped for.

For a start, although the question is there, is that really the best way to get an honest evaluation of school leaders’ actions? There are plenty of teachers who would rather their school’s leadership team made different decisions, but far fewer who would want to shop them to Ofsted.

Undue pressure

In those schools where leaders really do demand unreasonable workload, who’s to say that they won’t also place undue pressure on staff to respond positively to the survey, too? Anonymity may work in theory, but in practice it’s a trickier assurance to provide.

What’s more, what do Ofsted inspectors know about how to reduce workload in schools?

I see no evidence from the past 20 years of inspections providing any sort of guidance to schools and leaders about minimising work – far from it. Maybe their tune has changed, and even their intentions. 

But now is not the best time for them to be asking. Perhaps a better question might be: “Do you agree that Ofsted takes workload into account when developing and implementing new policies and procedures?”

Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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