How do you solve a problem like teacher workload?

Schools Week looks at the barriers and ideas for reducing teacher workload, as the government sets up a new taskforce

Schools Week looks at the barriers and ideas for reducing teacher workload, as the government sets up a new taskforce

24 Sep 2023, 6:00

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With teacher workload at the forefront of government policy again, we look at the barriers to reducing hours

The government is set to miss its secondary teacher recruitment target for the 10th time in 11 years. A record rate of teachers left the profession last year.

Alongside the 6.5 per cent pay deal, the government this week unveiled a new workload reduction taskforce charged with cutting five hours from teachers’ working week.

But ministers have been trying to drive down workload for the best part of a decade, with progress slowing significantly in recent years. 

Schools Week investigates…

What has been announced?

A workload reduction taskforce, made up of 14 sector leaders, has been set the challenge of slashing five hours from the working week of teachers and school leaders within three years.

The government will publish an updated recruitment and retention strategy this winter – setting out priorities for the coming years and updating on whether previous commitments have been met. 

The workload taskforce was promised as part of the government’s pay deal with unions to end teacher strikes. It met for the first time on Wednesday.

The deal included a “revised list of administrative tasks that teachers should not be expected to do” into the schoolteachers’ pay and conditions handbook.

Initial teacher training (ITT) recruitment figures shows just over half of required trainee secondary teachers are set to be recruited this year – despite a rise in bursaries for many subjects.

The panel will be tasked with turning around stalling progress on cutting workloads.

The government’s 2014 workload challenge led to about five hours being shaved off teachers’ average working week by 2019, which then stood at 49.5 hours.

However, the 2023 workload survey showed classroom teachers’ working week has fallen by less than an hour in three years. 

teacher workload reduction progress over recent years

At the current rate, it would take more than six years to realise the government’s pledge to reduce teachers’ workload by five hours a week. 

Leaders now work longer on average, up from 55.1 hours in 2019 to 56.8 this year.

The teacher workload gains already made

Schools minister Nick Gibb said the DfE wanted to “build on the past successes in reducing workloads and continue to remove additional burdens, so that teachers can focus on what they do best: teach”.

The 2014 workload challenge identified recording, inputting and analysing data, marking, lesson planning, and administrative and support tasks as areas presenting the greatest opportunities to reduce workloads.

In its response to a consultation with the sector, the DfE encouraged schools to think about “sparing use” of more detailed and written feedback and “effective use” of whole school data management systems.

It also encouraged the use of “tablets” for planning, assessment and recording lesson notes and more “peer and self-assessment”.

A 2019 DfE teacher workload survey found the average total self-reported working hours for teachers and middle leaders in 2019 was 49.5, down from 54.4 in 2016.

The survey found reductions in reported working hours were “concentrated in DfE’s areas of focus following the 2014 workload challenge”.

Compared to 2016, teachers and leaders reported spending fewer hours on marking or correcting pupils’ work, individual planning and preparation lessons, and undertaking pupil supervision and tuition. 

But there is still scope to go further…

While progress has been made, research shows there is still scope to go further. A government-commissioned report on workload reduction this July found leaders and teachers estimate they still worked more than seven “unnecessary hours” a week on average – down from 8.75 hours five years ago.

Jack Worth said there were easy gains still to be made on teacher workloads
Jack Worth

Other government reports have highlighted that non-teaching tasks remain an issue. Its working lives of teachers and leaders’ survey found that about half of teachers said data recording, inputting and analysis, individual lesson planning and marking took up “too much” time.

A separate government-backed study exploring teachers’ admin time, published this year, found more support staff were needed to prevent teachers spending 380 hours a year on admin.

Jack Worth, workforce lead at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), said workloads were still hampered by “a lot of the same issues – they haven’t gone away”. 

In terms of admin and marking, he added: “I’m sure there’s more easy, low-hanging fruit [the taskforce could look to] to reduce admin time.”

…And where to look for more workload gains

Nansi Ellis, former NEU assistant general secretary and education policy specialist, was part of the planning and resources review group under the 2014 workload challenge. She suggested the taskforce should “remind” schools of the government messaging last time round.

“That was the period of triple-marking … but a lot of schools are still doing it,” said Ellis. She added that where schools had moved to verbal feedback over written marking in the intervening years, other issues could have cropped up “around recording that feedback”.

Ellis said advancements in technology could be harnessed: “[The taskforce] need to be asking the question of whether we actually need to do that work, or whether technology could do it quicker.”

The DfE has launched a call for evidence about the future use of AI in education, amid hopes it could save time. A Teacher Tapp survey this month showed a third of teachers were using tools such as ChatGPT to help with work.

The working lives of teachers survey exposed ongoing issues with teacher workload

As part of the response to the workload challenge, the DfE asked Ofsted to make changes to reduce workloads. These included clarification about what is required by inspectors, offering shorter inspections to good schools and “simplifying and shortening” its handbook.

However, Helena Marsh, principal at Linton Village College and another former member of the department’s workload review groups, said the shift in focus from results to curriculum in the 2019 education inspection framework led to “a lot of schools feeling they had to do a lot of new stuff. So, I think it’s worth going back and looking at those things.”

‘The landscape has shifted’

Marsh pointed out that the “landscape has shifted” since before the pandemic.

A report from wellbeing charity Education Support found in May that most school staff were working at least four extra hours a week to provide additional support to pupils, amid warnings that schools are now the “de facto and unofficial brand of social and healthcare services”. 

NFER research published this month showed leaders have expanded the scale and range of support available to pupils in response to the cost-of-living crisis. 

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association and a member of the DfE’s new workload taskforce, said the group must consider “the additional challenges that have been handed to schools because of what’s happening in the world around them. 

“We need to seriously look at what is reasonable for schools to take on and what really does need to be covered by other people.”

Marsh added increased workload wasn’t just down to staff attending to more pastoral needs themselves, but demonstrating that they had done so. 

There is no extra cash

The workload push comes with no additional cash. “High levels of workload are driven by the underfunding of the education system, which leaves teachers and leaders doing more work with fewer resources,” said ASCL union general secretary Geoff Barton.

He remains “sceptical about whether there is the will in government to take some of the steps that are required”.

Nansi Ellis suggested more resources were needed for big changes on teacher workload
Nansi Ellis

Ellis added that areas with the potential for a “massive reduction” in workload include “supporting children with [SEND]. If you had the staffing you needed for that… or there weren’t children coming in needing uniforms washed or food given to them.”

Knights questioned whether workload reduction could boost retention, with pay and incentives going “hand in hand” with workloads.

“We need this work to be alongside a real look at pay incentives,” she added.

All four unions wrote to education secretary Gillian Keegan on Thursday calling for “urgent proposals” to “repair the damage to teacher pay”.

They called for the School Teachers’ Review Body to be given a remit on workload to make recommendations “that will speed up the reductions in workload, working time and work intensity that are necessary and urgent in schools”.

Not just about reducing teacher hours

In its report this year, the STRB called for the withdrawal of the obligation on schools to operate performance-related pay progression (PRP). The body ruled the “burden of administering it exceeds any benefit that it is achieving”.

The unions called on Keegan to ditch PRP immediately, as it made “critical workload problems worse”. Many schools and trusts have already stopped using it.

The unions want a return to a “fair pay progression” system that automatically awards pay rises each year based on experience. Experts such as Worth also warn that “it’s not just about reducing hours, it’s about improving teachers’ perceptions of their job”. 

Ellis suggests frustration around workloads is partly over tasks that feel “less meaningful” and that a risk lies in schools cutting tasks that “make the job enjoyable”.

Despite the barriers, Knights remained optimistic. “We need to achieve [a fall of five hours] and we don’t want to go into this process being defeatist,” she said. 

Meet the new teacher workload reduction taskforce:

  • James Bowen, assistant general secretary,
    National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT)
  • Cassie Buchanan, CEO, Charter Schools
    Education Trust
  • Jon Hutchinson, director of training and
    development, Reach Foundation
  • Emma Knights and Emma Balchin, co-chief
    executives, National Governance Association
  • Selena Lansley, senior advisor for workforce
    and negotiations, Local Government
    Association (LGA)
  • Stuart Lock, CEO, Advantage Schools
  • Sinéad Mc Brearty, CEO, Education Support
  • Darren Northcott, national official, National
    Association of Schoolmasters and Union of
    Women Teachers (NASUWT)
  • Adrian Prandle, director of government
    relations and workforce policy, National
    Education Union (NEU)
  • Steve Rollett, deputy chief executive,
    Confederation of School Trusts (CST)
  • Janet Sheriff, CEO, Collaborative Learning
  • Dr Sam Sims, lecturer, UCL Institute of
    Education – Centre for Education Policy and
    Equalising Opportunities
  • Sara Tanton, deputy director of policy,
    Association of School and College Leaders
  • Kate Treacy, English teacher, Parliament Hill

Flexible working resources

A toolkit with “practical resources” launches this month to help leaders “embed flexible working” in their schools. This includes information on job shares, part-time working and
personal days.

Five more flexible working ambassador trusts have been named, adding to the seven announced in June and delivering the 12 promised by the government. They are:

  • Lapal Primary School, part of Hales Valley Trust
  • Newport Girls’ High School Academy Trust
  • Aspire Alternative Provision School
  • The Halifax Academy, part of Impact Education Multi-Academy Trust
  • The Reach Academy Feltham

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  1. Paul Tran

    Easy! Stop teachers having to spend their time fulfilling the Performance Management targets the SLT push on the staff…the ones that have no reason, no purpose and no point…which, sorry to break this to most SLT members is 99% of them! You know the ones – those that the SLT tell us about on Training Days* (*No-one is listening and no-one cares about you imposing your selfish self-aggrandising greasy pole climbing exploits on your colleagues).

    Get rid of all PM for everyone. Have one head and deputy. It’s becoming clear most SLT jobs are not teaching roles these days and can be done by non-teachers. Demote the SLT and these awful money grabbing CEOs and Exec Heads back to the classroom to teach on M1 and let them experience life on the front line. That’ll save millions per secondary and solve the staffing issues.

  2. Barry Foster

    This article is so vague and I notice that the Workload Reduction Task Force only has one classroom teacher on it. Therein lies part of the problem. Teachers know which part of their job are important and which parts are not. Planning is vital but there should be a simplified way of doing it. Marking is also vital to know what the pupils have done but it should be easy and effective. Too many schools have policies that micro manage these areas, mainly so they look good in Ofsted inspections. Pay teachers a decent salary. Pay subject leaders a decent amount to lead, with the time to do it. Make pay progress linked to experience without having to jump through hoops. There need to be more teaching staff in schools to create time. There also need to be more properly trained support staff to do some of the tasks that don’t need to be done by a teacher (data input, analysis). The bottom line is the Government want to talk about reducing workload, without coming to the logical conclusion that to do it properly will cost a significant amount of money. Like everything else this Conservative Government do, they want it on the cheap.

  3. A fundamental rethink is needed. Teacher Collaborative shared Ed tec systems are already available which can save phenomenal amounts of time to help lesson planning, formative assessment and contribute to summative assessments, yet schools are failing to use them. They work best when schools and teachers collaborate and do have a the potential to revolutionise teaching if AI capabilities of such systems are developed.
    Teacher workload has massively increased as the demands and pressures on students have increased. The role of the teacher has massively broadened and it is time to bring in youth workers, sports coaches, more music and arts services and mental health professionals in every school. Making every teacher a SEND specialist has been a massive failure and other strategies need to be employed. Ed tec and AI gives us the ability to ditch the Victorian factory batch production model of education and provide individually tailored project based multidisciplinary integrated learning programmes and by doing so allow teachers to teach and students to be educated rather than trained to pass terminal examinations

  4. Craig244k

    Have teachers clock on at 8.00, leave at 4.30 and give them 30 minutes for lunch. Any work that cannot be done in this time should be left. Want teachers to stay for parents evening? Give them the time off in lieu. Teaching is a job, it is not servitude.