The Workload Challenge inspired us to empower our departments and escape the data trap – and you can too (Sponsored Article)

1st December 2017 at 13:00
When headteacher Helena Marsh read the DfE-commissioned independent workload review reports on data management and marking, she realised it contained important lessons for her own school. Here, she reveals how the recommendations have changed her staff’s working lives for the better

Linton Village College, Cambridgeshire, is fortunate not to be struggling with recruitment and retention challenges and our staff absence rates are relatively low. However, I am still very conscious of the real and present pressures that teachers face in the current educational climate.

I was privileged to be chosen as a member of the independent teacher review group set up to investigate reducing the burden of planning on teachers, one of three such review groups created by the Department for Education in the wake of the Workload Challenge.

As a result, I am familiar with the reports produced by all three groups. The data management and marking review groups have some very clear messages which accord with my own philosophy and approach, and which I wanted to apply in our own school.

Taking the first steps

Working alongside middle leaders, I reviewed our existing policies on data and assessment. Historic requirements demanded whole-school frequency of marking (every two weeks) and whole-school data drop deadlines (at the end of every half-term for core and option subjects and termly for others).

We agreed that these requirements were not fit for purpose across the curriculum. For example, humanities teachers with a large number of classes found themselves drowning in marking at the start of a holiday to satisfy data entry requirements.

I removed the requirement for frequency of marking and invited heads of faculty to create their own subject-specific marking policies to articulate what, how and when they would assess.

This provided them with the freedom to refresh assessment practices to suit the needs of their curricula and to ensure that their policies were meaningful and manageable. I asked heads of subject to work alongside their teams, including trainees, to check that expectations were clear and achievable.

Alongside this, the senior leadership team reviewed the data management expectations. We decided that it was important to allow subject teams to create their own assessment deadlines to sit in line with curriculum coverage and workload demands.

We scrapped whole-school data drops and asked subject leaders to create their own assessment calendars to suit their curricula and in conjunction with marking expectations. 

What influenced our approach?

It was clear from the outcomes of the Workload Challenge, and from reading articles and blogs on the subject, that school leaders and systems needed to tackle the issue head on to avoid further casualties from crippling workload. The statistics released by unions about average working hours and reasons for leaving the profession clearly highlighted unsustainable workload practices.

It became clear to me some of the primary causes for excessive workload expectations were:

  • Treating consistency of process as the Holy Grail of schooling, rather than demanding consistency of quality.
  • Prioritising proxies for learning over genuine learning in order to satisfy accountability concerns.
  • Creating a compliant but exhausted workforce where a “no excuses” culture excused inhumane workload expectations.

In a time of high-stakes accountability it can be tempting for school leaders to want to measure, track, assess and monitor every tangible output. However, the unintended negative consequence of this actually hinders rather than enhances the quality of teaching and learning – to say nothing of how it can disempower, taking away confidence in one’s own professional judgement.

Positive feedback

This holistic consideration of marking and data has created a more meaningful assessment cycle that prioritises learning and makes sense for teachers, rather than satisfying management and accountability systems. It requires a greater sense of subject autonomy and trust in teachers.

Departments have appreciated the opportunity to establish their own assessment policies and have welcomed the move away from whole-school deadlines. Giving greater freedom and autonomy to subject teams has removed stifling, inflexible demands, and has enabled teachers to have greater control over their workload.

The feedback from my staff has been excellent. The religious studies department has this to say: “As a recently qualified teacher and head of department, the shift from whole-school marking and the changes in assessment calendars have been very positive. It has given [us] the freedom to make assessments and marking work for us.

“By choosing our own data deadlines, we have managed to ensure that every student receives appropriate marking outcomes in a term according to a timescale that works for us. A whole-school approach would be difficult to maintain, in that the frequency with which we see students is far less than in some other subjects. Both of these factors have had a positive impact on the department.”

Meanwhile, a teacher from the humanities department says this: “The change in approach has been beneficial for a number of reasons. It has allowed us to really think about what we wish to assess and how we want to go about doing this.

“Fixed, whole-school deadlines were often an artificial driver where colleagues felt that they were marking in order to complete data input. Sometimes, assessment would be carried out at this time, rather than when it ‘fitted best’ with curriculum, or teaching and learning.

“By looking at this as a faculty, and at times a department, level, it has allowed us to build in peer-, self- and teacher-assessment at times that fit with the timing of our individual topic schemes of work.

“With humanities staff often teaching a second subject, the subject-specific assessment calendar can be designed to avoid deadlines all approaching at the same time and allow for the balance of workload and strategic choice. Staff also ‘buy in’, as they feel they have had a say in the approach.”

What next?

  • We will continue to focus on improving teachers’ workload and ensure that the subject features on training and meeting agendas at all levels from governors to trainees.
  • School leaders will regularly review workload in line with the new curriculum and assessment practices, and test new initiatives to ensure that they are workload neutral or have a positive impact. 
  • We continue to change workload habits and empower middle leaders to embed effective departmental practices.
  • We will be reviewing the setting, monitoring, chasing and marking of homework, which has been highlighted as a significant workload pressure in terms of teacher time and energy.
  • We will also be assessing our expectations of how much paperwork should be generated by lesson observations. We no longer grade teaching and most teachers have only one or two formal observations a year but we are keen to streamline practices and remove unnecessary bureaucracy.

The most significant next step involves brave leadership – committing to do what’s right and in the best interests of students. Having a happy and healthy workforce is essential. It is important to be courageous as senior leaders and to do what is right for learning, rather than act out of fear.

Helena Marsh is executive principal of Chilford Hundred Education Trust and principal of Linton Village College; she contributed to the Department for Education-commissioned independent report on eliminating unnecessary workload around planning and teaching resources.

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