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Why is reducing teacher workload so hard?

A new report by the NFER reveals many schools are already doing all they can to reduce workload and more effort must come from government, explains Kerry Martin

A new report by the NFER reveals many schools are already doing all they can to reduce workload and more effort must come from government, explains Kerry Martin

1 Nov 2023, 4:00

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The government made workload reduction a priority in its 2019 Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy and has produced practical resources for schools such as the school workload reduction toolkit. In spite of this, high workload continues to be the main factor causing teachers to consider leaving the profession in England. In response, the government also recently announced a new workload reduction taskforce to support their ambition to knock five hours from the current average of 48.7 hours per week for teachers within three years.

We have seen some improvement in reducing teacher workload in recent years, yet teacher working hours remain higher than their peers outside of teaching and this does not seem to be for want of effort from school leaders.

Our new study, commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and published today, finds that most schools are already using a wide range of approaches to tackle the problem, to the extent that there are very few strategies in the workload reduction toolkit that many schools have not already implemented.

Most commonly, this involves giving teachers at least the statutory time for planning and marking, providing access to existing schemes of work and lesson plans, using efficient methods of marking and feedback and encouraging collaborative lesson planning.

Although many schools are using technology and software solutions for a range of administrative tasks, we didn’t find much evidence that they’re using Artificial Intelligence (AI) for workload reduction, at least not yet. There is therefore some potential here, as identified by the secretary of state recently, and which the government has backed this week with a £2 million investment in Oak National Academy.

In many ways, schools’ efforts are paying off. We found a positive connection between schools that have more workload reduction strategies and teachers’ views of their workload manageability, autonomy and job satisfaction. However, while many schools seem to be doing a great deal to reduce teacher workload, teachers told us some of the main drivers of workload come from outside the school – primarily from the government and Ofsted – which they have little power to influence.

In many ways, schools’ efforts are paying off

Teachers also said that workload pressures are being exacerbated by an increase in behavioural incidents and a decline in external support services available to schools (especially for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities). Perhaps unsurprisingly, schools identified insufficient funding/staff capacity as the top barrier to workload reduction.

The workload reduction taskforce will make recommendations to government, Ofsted and school and trust leaders in spring 2024. In developing their recommendations, we hope the taskforce members will consider some of the challenges highlighted in this research with regards to tackling this pernicious problem.

First, any new workload reduction interventions may in fact add to teacher workload, at least in the short term. This is because implementing new strategies takes time. Guidance on which strategies are more likely to be impactful would help schools prioritise and allocate their resources effectively.

Second, there are particular aspects of teachers’ work which they don’t want to give up. They consider these to be integral to the quality of teaching and learning. Key examples of this include the time teachers spend planning lessons and communicating with parents.

Finally, school leadership is key to setting the culture of making workload manageable. Teachers gave us examples of leaders either adding to or reducing the intensity of external workload pressures. They also mentioned the importance of flexibility for managing their work. Even small examples were appreciated, such as being allowed to do some administrative tasks at home or leaving school early to attend their own child’s sports day.

While the new taskforce gets stuck into these issues, we will continue to provide evidence on the areas of teachers’ work they would most like to see made more manageable. We encourage school leaders to make further inroads and keep an eye on promising developments in areas like AI, but tackling external pressures on schools so that teachers can focus on the job of teaching must be a  government priority.

The NFER’s workload review is one of three EEF-commissioned reviews into practices to improve teacher recruitment and retention published today. See also a report on leadership approaches and a report on flexible working approaches.

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2 Comments

  1. Mr CS teacher

    Increase teacher ppa time to 25%. Currently contact time is 90% in most schools with only 10% ppa time. This makes planning, marking etc impossible. Think about it.
    25 period week of one hour lessons. 90% means you teach 22 hours a week. If you devote an hour to each lesson (marking planning ) that’s already 44 hours a week. (However marking a set of assessments can take hours) Add in tutor times, assemblies, pastoral meetings, department meetings etc. Every so often you have a parents evening or report writing you are hitting 44-50 hours a week. May I also add even though I am not an English teacher the work load is considerably higher and even though management teams so it all balances out in the long run it doesn’t. Option subjects at gcse often have smaller classes compared to compulsory subjects and even though PE teachers may have extra commitments marking 60 year 11 mock exams takes a considerable amount of time. There is no short cut they have to be marked.
    So 75% contact time is a starting point. And how do you recruit more ? By advertising the 75% contact time – and how do schools pay for more staff? By saving money on huge teacher absenteeism as teaching 90% is way too high.

  2. I honestly despair. The idea of reducing teacher workload by a mere 5 hours per week is an absolute travesty: given that teachers currently with, on average, as quoted in this article, almost 49 hours per week, this would still mean we’d be working 44 hours per week whilst only being paid for 32.5!

    I’d say that the only real and meaningful solution to workload is to give teachers 30% PPA time. This would equate to about 10 hours per week, during school hours, and therefore take 10 hours off what we are forced to do outside of the school day.

    This will, of course, require significant financial investment from the government, so I’m not holding my breath, and in the meantime everyone suffers: teachers and students alike.