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Workload: the beginning of an answer?

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The ‘w’ word.  We hear about it in the press daily, accompanied by sorry pictures of teachers plunging headfirst into mounds of unruly paperwork. The problem is pervasive, and we all know we need to do something about it, especially if we’re going to stem what some believe to be a recruitment crisis within the sector. But the question is… how?

Perhaps, like many working in education, I’ve been cynical about how effectively the government is tackling the workload issue. And not without reason. When asked what schools should do to address workload, Nicky Morgan famously suggested that teachers should avoid emailing after 5pm. “Just work less” didn’t really cut it for many in the profession. Constant changes to testing arrangements and performance measures don’t help. And the Workload Challenge, a survey by the DfE to find out what the main drivers of teacher workload are, was dismissed by some as a cosmetic exercise and PR stunt.

So it was a pleasant surprise when, on reading the three reports by working groups set up by the DfE to tackle workload, I discovered the starting points for a more focused, pragmatic discussion of workload than we’ve seen previously. And one that could, if taken seriously and implemented consistently, safeguard the wellbeing and professional contentment of our teachers.

The reports look at planning, marking and data management. They outline what everybody, including Ofsted, MATs, school leaders and teachers, can do to remedy the situation, and thereby acknowledge that the whole sector needs to work together and not against one another. The reports also highlight examples of good and bad practice, and bust pervasive myths that are leading to workload pressures.

There is of course an elephant in the room in all our discussions of workload. Rises in national insurance and pension contributions, coupled with rising pupil numbers, mean that schools are having to deal with squeezed budgets - which can sadly lead to redundancies and staffing cuts. Schools are having to do more with less, and that can’t help but have an impact on teacher workload. There is a real challenge involved in addressing workload in this context.

But I think a possible solution and cause for hope is to go back to the fundamentals of good teaching and learning, backed up by rigorous, evidence-based research. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has a forthcoming study on marking. We need more like this, so schools can be clear on why they do what they do. By focusing squarely on what works and what doesn’t work, we can keep the main goal in sight – that’s educating children so they can succeed and thrive, and not filling out paperwork and accountability trails.

Perhaps the most important theme of the reports is that securing good pupil progress and outcomes does not go hand-in-hand with a high teacher workload – they are not dependent on one another. In fact, as one of the reports acknowledges, asking teachers to complete reams and reams of paperwork can actually be detrimental to their learning. Ofsted too has been clear that it does not expect to see individual lesson plans, any particular frequency or type of marking, or for performance and pupil-tracking data to be presented in a particular format.

Here at The Key, we’ve been thinking of ways we can make the task of combating workload pressures a little easier. We have articles on our school leader website (login required) on strategies to improve staff work/life balance, reasonable expectations for lesson planning, reducing paperwork for teachers, and managing marking workload. We’ve also got a tool that can be used to assess how many hours teachers are working per week, and how long they’re spending on various tasks.

But is there anything else you’d like to see? What will help you? As ever, do let us know.

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