No frills education: the workload paradox.


Becky Allen’s brilliant speech this week and Amanda Spielman’s clarification that Ofsted were indeed cross checking teacher’s responses to the workload question on their staff questionnaire with SLT’s claims, has brought the question of workload to the fore again.

Some time ago I wrote a post with ideas on reducing workload in schools. But since then, the double whammy of workload and a funding crisis has hit the profession. So many schools are saying they can’t reduce workload without spending money. And others have reacted to the workload spotlight by telling staff they are not allowed to publicly discuss workload any more. Head well in the sand there.

I get the difficulty. In my husband’s workplace, the only way the senior leadership team could respond to funding problems was to restructure the school day, meaning that staff were teaching more lessons with bigger class sizes. That has impacted on workload massively, especially around marking. But everyone understood that there was a funding issue. When this happens (and it is becoming more and more common), we have to find ways of making room for this extra load in ways that don’t cost money. And that means an element of sacrifice.

Parent’s evenings, some would say, are valuable in terms of developing relationships with parents. We can have face to face contact, show them pupil’s work and build relationships. But do they impact on learning? Are they an additional frill when we consider the need to focus on core impact with as little money as possible? No. They cost more. They cost in heating and lighting buildings. They cost, often, in feeding staff. Could technology be used for more effective modes of reporting, cutting down on costs and staff time? Undoubtedly.

Do we need common assessment points, where data is collected centrally. Most staff report that this has two effects on their work. There is the time in inputting the data. And then there is the game. Many of us know the horror of seeing the progress spreadsheet turn amber or red because of some algorithmic calculation. How many of us have altered the data to spare ourselves the pain of having to write individual action plans for pupils we know how to support and who are doing ok? Just so the computer will stop saying no. Are half termly or termly collection points necessary? Becky Allen points to over half of the teachers in the country in her survey reporting that they had to do this half termly. It was the straw that drove me out of teaching – 15 hours every half term spent on meaningless data. Reducing this to bi-annual or annual collections would allow schools to collate progress data and reduce staff time and would not cost a bean.

I’m not sure what more Ofsted could have done in reminding teachers that they don’t expect to see triple marking, or every piece of work marked, or verbal feedback recorded in books. Yet it seems that schools still have burdensome marking policies. Why? When Ofsted do come in, they expect staff to adhere to the policy in place. Why not simplify the policy? It costs nothing. And saves money in coloured pens.

How much time is spent on meetings offering information that could easily be communicated via email? How much time on twilights that are irrelevant to staff needs? When a member of your staff who is, let’s say, a trained counsellor has to sit through training on how to talk to students about suicide, one has to ask, why not get the trained counsellor to do the training rather than sit being told things he already knows? Why spend the money? Spend less but give the member of staff with the expertise a little time to plan it. Cheaper but not free. Why not allow other staff who already have that knowledge to skip the training and use their time to do something that will benefit their department? Are we valuing and allowing staff who spend their Saturdays in training to offset this with time in lieu?

How much of our meeting/monitoring/evidencing is done with a small minority of staff in mind? How many times are decisions made for the whole with the needs of a few at the centre? How can we ensure that where interventions/training/difficult conversations are required, they are targeted at those who need them and not at the whole staff? It’s like giving a full class detention – breeds nothing but resentment from the majority.

There is no doubt that funding shortages impact on schools in ways that affect staff workload. But there are nevertheless many things that can go without costing any money. And when that wolf comes to the door, asking their workload question, your answer can be “we’ve reduced the paperwork and evidencing we provide for you without compromising our results.” Then hope that the staff body agrees that it has had impact.

I know it may seem obvious. But the only question we really need to ask when we make decisions about staff workload is “does this task/request impact positively on pupil outcomes and quality of experience?” And if the answer is no, it can probably go. If it actually undermines pupil outcome and experience by taking valuable time and energy away from the effectiveness of teaching, then it can definitely go.





6 thoughts on “No frills education: the workload paradox.

      1. The problem is that Parents meetings, Staff meetings … tho maybe (IYHO) pupil benefits can with free food to staff inculcate morale. LIfe would be awfully dull without the odd night with customers (parents pay in reality).

        Data entry is a non-negotiable how are you to assess progress …

  1. I cannot tell you how much time and energy is devoted to “showcase” events in independent schools, which take up an inordinate amount of teacher time and energy. While it’s nice to hear how much parents “love” the school following such events, it’s more for marketing and PR, not for improving teaching or learning. The same is true for the so-called “Goals Meeting”, and “Teacher Observations.” Do these tropes of school leadership practice really improve teaching and learning? No. They’re merely things that school administrators use as a part of their CYA practices. Let’s get it together, administrators, and do things which really promote effective teaching and learning, and do not waste teacher time in the process.

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