Why won't schools listen to the experts about reducing workload?

Why won't schools listen to the experts about reducing workload?

It's been more than a year since the Department for Education published reports from three independent review groups addressing issues raised by the Workload Challenge survey. All three reports gave clear recommendations to help reduce teacher marking, planning and data management. But is the message getting through to leaders? To look at schools across the country, it doesn't seem like it.

In February, the DfE released a new poster and pamphlet with more explicit guidance for schools, which was produced in conjunction with the major teaching unions and Ofsted.

It was no small irony that the inspectorate – blamed by 53% of respondents in the Workload Survey for increasing pressure on teachers – backed the pamphlet.

The DfE has told teachers to go easy on the marking and the new inspection handbook, released in November last year, tells inspectors not to expect marking to be completed in a particular format or detail.

Planning has also come under fire, with the DfE saying that excessively detailed daily or weekly plans should be replaced and schools should block out time for teams to collaboratively plan, ensuring high-quality resources and schemes of work are developed.

There is little point either, they point out, in spending hours capturing data. Quoting the report from the data management review group, the DfE advises schools to "be ruthless" and only collect data that will have an impact on children's outcomes – not to do what's always been done.

The department is also now collecting good practice on their blog where schools can discuss how they are working smarter. It includes examples of schools who have dramatically altered their marking policies, cut homework, adopted collaborative planning techniques and eradicated unnecessary data collection.

Jennifer Beattie, head of modern foreign languages at Emerson Park Academy in Essex, is one such leader. She radically altered her department's marking policy with the result that teacher workload was dramatically reduced with no detriment to student progress or learning.

"We mark only one lesson's worth of notes from classwork and/or a specific homework every two weeks and we use that to make a judgement on students' performance and attitude to learning," she says. "As a result, teachers in my department now feel they can stay on top of the marking and SLT are getting used to not expecting the entire student's book to have green ink on it."

Whilst the new document has been largely welcomed as a step forward by the teaching profession, Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the NUT, says the profession must be under no illusion about the work that still needs to be done to get the message through to school leaders.

"It's a positive step, but it doesn't go far enough," he says. "The DfE needs to give even stronger signals to heads that they have an obligation to manage teacher workload.

"There are so many other sources of excess workload: class sizes increasing, teaching assistants being sacked, evidence demands to get a pay rise – often still turned down on funding grounds. There is so much more to do."

But until the funding crisis passes (and it doesn't look like that will be any time soon), maybe an even closer look at the practices around inspection is the logical step. Ofsted's outcomes-based approach has been a key driver in creating fear and increased workloads for too long.

There has, at least, been recognition from new chief inspector Amanda Spielman about the responsibility her organisation must take in changing the culture of accountability.

In a speech to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) in March this year, she said: "All of us have a role to play in tackling that destructive cycle which means the teaching profession is bleeding talent, and losing the brightest and the best ... teachers in England spend significantly more time on planning, marking and administration, where I know unnecessary preparation for inspection plays a part."

As long as an inspection has the power to make or break a school, it's little wonder that leaders don't feel confident in making the changes to workload that their staff so desperately need.

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