School leaders shouldn’t be blamed for the workload problem

Laura Ralph
Ofsted recently announced that its inspectors will now ask staff whether they think that school leaders take workload into account when developing policies, “so as to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on staff”.

Firstly, we should welcome Ofsted’s decision to include the impact of workload in its evaluation of a school. I’m hoping that this is the first in a line of strategies set up to tackle the problem. But is the right question for the sector to be asking, when the workload issue is a symptom of deeper problems at policy level?

The government acknowledged some responsibility for creating, and thus needing to alleviate, teachers’ excessive workload through setting up its workload challenge, which was wrapped up in 2016 with some recommendations for schools, Ofsted and government. And schools are doing their best to implement this, with research projects targeted at specific areas of workload and pioneering schools leading the way through bold new approaches.

But the government needs to show how schools can realistically and practically implement such strategies, and importantly whilst maintaining standards. When attainment and progress requirements are so stringent and the stakes are so high, it’s hard to know which aspects of workload you can afford to cut back without risking your standards dropping and your school suffering. Schools haven’t been offered the support, such as practical tools and training, to help reform their internal systems whilst remaining on the right side of the rules. They’ve been told they’re doing it wrong, but not how to do it right.

We need to recognise that schools have a stretched short-term capacity for actually sitting down and creating effective plans for reducing workload, even if the long-term result of a reduced workload would mean time saved.

According to our State of Education Survey 2017:

  • 91% of school leaders think that the pressure on schools from performance measures has increased in the last two years
  • 74% of academies and 62% of maintained schools say that, to balance their budgets, they will need to make savings in 2017/18
  • 68% of secondary schools are reducing support staff and 64% are reducing teaching staff to save money
  • More than three-quarters of school leaders don’t have confidence in the current national assessment system

None of this helps them plan or reduce their workload. Higher standards to maintain, but with less money and staff.

Despite these challenges, the responsibility to reduce workload now seems to be being pushed onto school leaders and managers. School leaders do have a responsibility to protect their staff as far as possible, but in the current climate that doesn’t seem like a straightforward task to me.

Genuinely tackling workload goes back a stage further than schools themselves. If the government considered workload when it was developing and implementing its own policies, we may not be having these issues. We should go beyond the requirement for government to provide more time for schools to implement new policies, and insist on thoroughly planned, government-executed pilots with evidence of positive impact and manageable workload before policies are rolled out nationally.

We need to ground ourselves in reality and recognise the high stakes schools are wrestling with when trying to decide how to reduce workload without reducing performance standards of the school and its pupils. We need to change the punitive, public approach to school accountability measures, so that it’s a rolling 3-year analysis of performance and not overly reliant on that cohort’s performance, that year.

Setting the bar so high is too much to expect of teaching staff and senior leaders, let alone the pupils, and isn’t conducive to positive, productive learning. Instead, it adds significant time and stress to teachers’ and school leaders’ workload. This isn’t about undermining high standards or erasing accountability – it’s understanding that pupils have different academic potential, and will achieve different end results no matter how hard they work. Metrics which don’t cater for this don’t do their job.

We should also acknowledge the breadth of abilities and skills needed for the workforce by broadening the curriculum with proper consultation and research into the skills young people currently lack when leaving school. Aiming to have 75% of pupils achieving within the narrow confines of the Ebacc doesn’t serve those young people for the years after their exams. The bar has already moved (from 90%) on this – why not move it to being an optional measure?

And why not let that option be that the students choose the subjects they study, with guidance on what’s best for them and not their school’s latest position in league tables? That way, the education is designed to be a best fit for the pupils and teacher workload is reduced – engaged, motivated pupils working at the right level for them means that lessons are easier to plan, work is easier to assess, and the system works better for everyone.

All of this compounded by the irony that one of the recommendations from the workload challenge was that the government should allow schools more time and support when implementing its new policies – but within a year, schools are expected to have solved the workload problem.

Workload is not an isolated issue. It’s a culmination of rushed policies. And the workload challenge itself has strangely resembled another one of those rushed policies.

We should welcome Ofsted’s acknowledgement that workload is a problem. But we should be wary that placing the blame at a school’s door won’t win over many school leaders.

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