To reduce teacher workload, the DfE should lead by example

The timing of the publication of the workload principles and the recommendations will do little to change policy, says Ross McGill

You could be pardoned for missing the publication of the workload principles from the Department for Education (DfE). Why? Because it was Easter and many teachers had long-forgotten their lesson plans and marking.

Yet Nicky Morgan wrote to each of the workload team chairs, affirming “there is no single factor that has led to increased workload … your reports brilliantly articulate why this situation has arisen and, most importantly, what can be done to address it.”

What infuriates me most is that the real issue has still not been tackled – although I admire the good work of colleagues who have invested time and energy, working with inspectors and policymakers to highlight issues and help to hone recommended principles.

It is all well and good to be offered theory and to be told by the education secretary to “take the recommendations seriously”: that if schools applied these principles, workload would decrease. Yet, schools and school leaders need support, not a “badge of resilience” for playing along with current constraints and expectations.

The DfE must start to lead by example. Do not publish reports to reduce workload when teachers are due to stop working.

Second, theories don’t cut the mark, but we do know common-sense ideologies work. If schools have impending Ofsted inspections and they are ranked unfavourably in league tables, you can understand why workload advice is difficult to heed.

There are some fantastic recommendations in each of the reports, yet the chairs admit in their letter to Morgan: “We know that a robust evidence base in the area of workload is weak.”

Theories don’t cut the mark

I believe that some issues lie in decision-making, with some schools asking their staff to submit data collections several times a year for examination students. But not all is lost.

Schools that take workload into their own hands are publishing streamlined policies and guidance to clarify expectations, consistency and work that is not required.

In 50 per cent of schools where lesson gradings have been banished, teachers are also no longer required to produce or submit any form of lessons plans, ever, for anyone! Instead, evidence of lesson planning found in schemes of work and curriculum plans aid student progress far more than a one-off lesson plan to satisfy observers.

The marking recommendations are exemplified in this statement by Dawn Copping, chair of the marking review team, who hopes “policy and practice […] based on what we know about marking rather than what we think we know” will become the new way of working.

We can only hope that schools continue to eliminate triple-marking for evidence trails and stop nonsensical verbal-feedback stamps and other hideous gimmicks. What works is marking – in any form – that is meaningful, manageable and motivating for the pupil.

What is clear from this particular section, is that teachers should not be wasting their time with fads and/or practices that do not have any impact on student progress – and that students should be working harder than the teacher.

But how is this possible with recent curriculum reforms and tougher examinations that offer little lead-in time and require robust, annotated scripts and controlled assessments?

“Greater attention should be given to the pace of national change,” say the principles. However, with no silver-bullet policy in any school to eradicate all forms of workload, and some specifications insisting on intricate assessment and record-keeping, it makes the task impossible.

Finally, if we are not given free licence, we need to take control for ourselves by “becoming a ‘circuit-breaker’ between the school and the outside world”, as Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says. “We must evaluate each initiative on its merits with the ability to say no.”

Lauren Costello, chair of the data review team, writes: “From the DfE to every school inspector senior leader and school teacher, we call on all parties in the education system to reduce the unnecessary burdens.”

Yet despite this passionate plea, without a fundamental change in school typology and funding, teachers will always need more time for planning and marking within their designated hours of employment.

There are some excellent recommendations within each of the reports, but for everyone involved in education, the DfE simply needs to lead by example and give us licence to get on with the job.


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