We asked teachers to be open and honest about their workloads. The results were surprising (Sponsored Article)

1st December 2017 at 13:00
Following the DfE’s publication of the independent review groups’ advice on reducing teacher workload, Vice-Principal of the Co-op Academy Leeds, Caroline Foster, explains why she has engaged in a workload group for the Trust led by its Director, Frank Norris

Teachers in our Trust, like so many across the country, work incredibly hard to secure the best possible outcomes for the children and young people in their care. Therefore, it is our responsibility as a leadership team to look after the wellbeing of our colleagues so they are rested, reflective, refreshed and able to perform to the best of their abilities in the classroom every day.

I have seen many fantastic teachers in other schools leave teaching because of excessive workloads. It was something I struggled with myself in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning at an inner-city secondary academy. So, I relished the opportunity to join our Trust’s workload group in order to share my experiences and ensure that we supported and retained our colleagues.

After the Department for Education published three official reports on reducing workload as part of the government’s Workload Challenge earlier this year, our Trust Director, Frank, decided to set up a group to discuss the subject. It has given colleagues throughout the ten academies in our Trust a regular forum for discussing best practice, and ideas for improving workload for teachers and support staff alike.

Clarify expectations

From the outset, each academy has been encouraged to solicit feedback from staff on their workload. All of our academies undertake an annual survey of staff, pupil and parents/carers and this provides an indication of views on a range of issues including workload. As part of the workload project colleagues are encouraged to complete an anonymous survey. We asked them to be open and honest about their workload, and to suggest ways in which we could support them in reducing it. The results were surprising.

Earlier this year, Ofsted released a report outlining some common myths about what it expected from school inspections, one of which centred on lesson planning. Although I thought our expectations as a leadership team were clear, it seems that this was not the case. In fact, old policies and staffroom gossip had conspired to create a set of planning expectations that were incorrect. Carrying out the survey enabled me to have an impact on some of my colleagues’ workloads immediately. 

One of my responsibilities is the promotion of staff wellbeing. Last academic year we ran a staff training day dedicated to the subject, and included sessions on activities designed to ease teacher workload such as effective planning strategies and reducing marking time. The training focused on quality, not quantity, and provided a forum for asking questions and sharing best practice. Owing to the success of these sessions they are now repeated throughout the academic year and resources made available online.

Moreover, I or a lead practitioner meet all new staff early in the year to ensure they have all the necessary information and strategies to support them. This allows us to clarify our policies and consequently eliminate any unnecessary habits that they have picked up, either in their previous role or during their teacher training year. 

Assistance for all

In addition, lead practitioners are available every Monday to support colleagues. Teachers can book an appointment with one of the teaching and learning team to get support with planning (or marking, or anything else teaching and learning-related). The sessions are often full, with colleagues including senior leaders, members of the teaching and learning team, newly qualified teachers and subject leaders all showing up.

A key reason why people feel able to ask for support is that we are non-judgemental and recognise that from time to time we all need help, whatever stage we are at in our careers.

I routinely remind colleagues that students will still make good progress if the worksheet isn’t perfectly aligned or the presentation isn’t multicoloured with smiley faces shooting from one side of the screen to the other. We actively encourage teachers to turn off their interactive whiteboard for the day and to teach in a more traditional way. In many ways, this can be more effective: the focus is on the students working, not the teacher standing at the front of the classroom teaching.

Support staff are key

All of the secondary academies in our Trust employ an administrative team to support subject areas and individual teachers with photocopying, making resources and data input. This allows teachers to create engaging learning activities for students without spending hours cutting and sorting and doing work best completed by others.

We also actively encourage the sharing of planning and resources. For example, each mathematics teacher is expected to plan and fully resource one unit of work. This is then shared with the rest of the team so it can be quickly differentiated for their own classes.

Alongside that, we provide colleagues with comprehensive schemes of work containing links to activities, presentations and ideas. This is in line with the recommendations from the independent planning and resources report, which states that senior and middle leaders should have an “expectation that a fully resourced, collaboratively produced scheme of work is in place for all teachers for the start of each term”.

Cross-academy support

Outside the work that goes on in our school, the Trust organises opportunities for colleagues across all ten academies to collaborate and share resources and best practice. Academy leadership teams support our subject teams to attend these sessions during the school day so that they can work with colleagues in similar roles throughout the Trust.

This allows us to share resources, assessments, schemes of work and new ideas. The meetings are simple and effective: provide colleagues with a room and some time to talk and work together. The agenda is set by them.

School policies?

Having taken part in the Trust’s workload group and seen the results of the anonymous survey, I felt it was imperative to update our school policies to make our expectations simple and clear. Further to this, we needed to include a section in each of our policies with suggestions on how to plan effectively and reduce workload.

The Trust’s workload report made suggestions and recommendations; the recommendations were implemented immediately in every academy without question. The Director insisted on this following discussions with the headteachers/Principals. These included setting a maximum number of data collection points, changing the language we used when referring to marking and producing clear school policies for expectations around workload.

The  independent planning and resources report says: “The SLT should not automatically require the same planning format across the school.” Our own school policy is now unambiguous; there is no preferred method of planning, other than ensuring that students are happy and safe, enjoy their learning and make good progress.

Achievements and next steps

The most obvious impact of the work we have done so far is in changing attitudes. The increased emphasis on wellbeing means that teachers are now willing to admit when they need support and are open in asking for help. It is not seen as a weakness but as an opportunity to change their practice and to improve.

In the most recent anonymous Trust survey, teachers acknowledged the “increased emphasis on staff wellbeing” and appreciated the range of continuing professional development opportunities available to them.

However, we recognise that there is still a lot to do to support staff in achieving a good work-life balance. Through further teacher consultation and feedback, and through acting on the recommendations set out in the Trust’s Workload Report, we hope we are getting ever closer to achieving this.

Caroline Foster is Vice-Principal of Co-op Academy Leeds. 

Read more about schools’ actions to tackle unnecessary workload on the DfE Teaching Blog.