The Mountain of Teacher Workload


I imagine reading through the 44,000 responses to Nicky Morgan’s ‘workload challenge’ was tantamount to climbing a wind-whipped mountain for some unfortunate staff at the Department for Education. It is no doubt ironic that it compares with the angst-inducing marking pile of many of those teachers who took their precious time to respond to the ‘challenge’.

Still, long after the challenge back in October of 2014, hunkered under piles of marking, data inputting, lesson planning, marking, OFSTED preparation, reports, lesson planning, and marking… teachers everywhere are still complaining about the ever-mounting workload and talk of a recruitment and retention crisis will not go away.

The problem is no doubt complex and, alas, I offer no easy answers; however, we do need to recognise some narrower issues that drive teacher workload to excess and do something about it. What factors have the biggest impact upon teacher workload? The answer is simple: marking and lesson planning. Workload issues come from huge amounts of planning and marking and the rest is frankly just tinkering around the edges. We need to deal with these two issues decisively if we are going to get to the root of the matter.

First, the issue of marking. We need the DfE and their working group to have a strong message about marking and feedback. Let’s also hear from the imminent Education Endowment Foundation report on marking. We cannot reiterate the message that marking everything does not equate to good teaching and learning enough, quite frankly. Of course, school leaders need to be willing to hear this message.

While we are at it, let Michael Wilshaw (whose suggestion of ‘golden handcuffs’ for newly trained teachers fails to get to the root of the problem) voice the culpability of OFSTED in helping compound the marking problem. Let’s help put a stop to marking being seen an easy proxy for OFSTED inspections to make a judgment on teaching and learning – rightly or wrongly, that message is alive and well in schools – thereby driving marking madness in schools across the land. One option is to remove the grading from quality of teaching and learning altogether (how can this be judged accurately in little over half a day anyway?).

This, by OFSTED, is a positive start, but better to hear it from Wilshaw, Morgan and Gibb:

Second, we have lesson planning. The reality is that planning takes time. The notion that we could all pick up scripts, textbooks and teach away ignores the fact that we are sentient adults who stubbornly refuse to teach like that. You’d see teachers reject this model and feel deskilled and demotivated – rightly or wrongly, and, all told, it would make too little difference to workload anyway. Even with scripts and decent schemes of learning, we are forced to adapt, provide model answers, give feedback, reteach, and much more.

Planning a new curriculum (for pretty much all key stages) – well, that takes even more time. No matter how clear the textbook, or how good the resources from the exam board, the rest is planned, delivered, adapted, adapted again, tweaked, changed and improved. WE must welcome better systems of collaborative planning, but it still proves a long and winding learning curve for even the most experienced of teachers.

The problem is that we sit at the bottom of the workload mountain and the learning curve of the new curriculum is intimidatingly steep. Of course, after the second year of teaching a new curriculum the planning is faster and in the third year, you better know your stuff and you drink from the horn of plenty-of-time-saved. Right now, we are at planning base camp. We all face a learning curve that looms above us like the north face of the Eiger!

Let’s offer some solutions to the lesson planning problem. We can do more than simply encourage schools to collaborate on devising schemes of learning. Let’s suggest the DfE could provide time and targetted funding support for all schools to provide time and resources for great CPD for new curriculum development and specific subject knowledge training. You can make the curriculum harder, but you then have to train teachers to best meet the new demands.

One immediate support for teachers would be for OFQUAL to actually accredit the remaining subjects in secondary schools. It is frankly ridiculous that subjects like Biology, Chemistry, Drama, French, German, PE, Physics, RE and Spanish still haven’t the full accreditation for their GCSE qualifications, with months before they need to be planned and then taught. Whether they have a draft or not, you cannot begin to properly ease the pain of scaling a workload mountain until you have a proper course to go at.

A inconvenient truth about a growing teacher workload is that it is an inevitable consequence of shrinking school budgets. Even when school leaders have sound policies with regard to marking and lesson planning, budget cuts mean fewer people doing more. It sees bigger class sizes across the board. Three or four more students in each class sees a little more feedback, a little more planning, a little more reporting, contact with parents, and more. As teacher contact time gradually increases, step by step, the workload mountain gets exponentially bigger.

If we think substantively improving the workload of teachers, thereby retaining and attracting more teachers, will come for free, or cheaply, or as a result of further ‘efficiency savings’, then you are plain wrong.

We can talk about austerity and the necessary pain for public services, but if we do not ease the burden of workload, we will see more teachers abondon the climb and leave the classroom, with yet more prospective teachers put off by sheer scale of the workload mountain.


6 thoughts on “The Mountain of Teacher Workload”

  1. A great post – I have recently stepped away from full time teaching and gone on supply – the money is not as good but the time I have gained is priceless. I’ve read a book a week this term – in the past 7 years of teaching I have probably read 10 books I haven’t been teaching.

    The problem with the ‘mountain’ is that they keep changing the kit we need to climb (often half way up) and then when we get there telling us it was the wrong mountain and we have to start over on another one.

    If all is plain sailing the workload is doable – it’s the “this week we are going to focus on” initiatives that haven’t been thought about in terms of how much extra work they will involve that get picked up, dragged out across school then forgotten for the next initiative in a few weeks.

  2. I agree – a great post. You are undoubtedly right – this simplistic notion that more equals better is driving a lot of it. My experience is also that this emanates not from SLT but from middle managers anxious to impress, and whom government and other initiatives normally fail to reach.

  3. Hi Alex. I blogged about the Workload Challenge last year. I thought this bit had delicious irony:

    “In an ironic twist, the Workload Challenge gave DfE officials a workload challenge of their own. So inundated were they with responses, that only a 10% sample was selected for analysis – and this task was outsourced to an independent research company. (Though the DfE’s report fails to mention the name of the organisation that had this honour).”

  4. Pingback: OTR Links 02/29/2016 | doug --- off the record

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