Teacher Workload: What Can Schools Do?

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley2 Comments

We know the problem with teacher workload is nothing new. It is the regular complaint of teachers across the nation. And yet the mountain of paperwork never appears to shrink!

Most often, we direct our complaints at policy makers. No doubt, we can make a call for a moratorium on curriculum reviews and new specifications. Happily, with the ditching of prospective year 7 SATs resits (BBC – Plans to make pupils resit SATs axed), perhaps politicians are listening. Nick Gibbs is even questioning the wisdom of ‘wasting time on marking in coloured pens‘, thereby rightly drawing attention to the excessive time being spent by many teachers on marking.

There is a great deal more our politicians need to do to mitigate our workload issues. Arguably, until we find teachers reduced timetables equivalent to teachers in Shanghai, we will always be pushing the rock with Sisyphus up the workload mountain. Still, within our own schools we can make key decisions that can make significant inroads to ensure we mitigate workload complaints. Here are some of my suggestions to help ease the teacher workload burden.

Reducing teacher workload – practical approaches:

1. Audit teacher time in your school. It is too easy to make assumptions about the time pressures of teachers in different roles. Is it marking, meetings, data inputting? Too often, senior leaders, with our best intentions, can miss the mark. Let’s search out the evidence for what will really make the difference.

2. Evaluate your school data inputting schedule. The hoary old idiom that ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter’ is pertinent here. In a brave new world of 1 to 9 grades, with little exemplification, it can see us grasp for certainty with yet more data inputting. We should question how often we are asking teachers to input data about student progress, whilst considering its impact on learning. The difference between a termly data input over half-termly inputting can prove crucial for maintaining teacher workload.

3. Have an evidence-based feedback policy. I don’t have to say much about marking, surely? The fetish for marking everything is surely to be questioning. The misapprehension that marking is the sum total of teacher feedback worth valuing needs quashing. Let’s empower teachers to have a feedback policy that differentiates by subject and by key stage. Let’s educate parents and students about effective feedback and reduce the marking burden to ensure it is manageable. Tools like this marking crib sheet from Mr Thornton could help.

4. Have a common-sense lesson planning policy. We all want to do a good job in the classroom. We all have a sense of what works in our school context. Alas, creating an endless checklist and a scroll-like planning pro forma simply won’t make our teachers better. In truth, excessive planning and two page planning requirements, may burn out teachers so that their lessons are flat and lifeless.

5. Avoid ‘Mocksteds’ and excessive lesson observation models. Opening the door on our expertise can prove highly valuable, but teachers know when they are being watched and when they are being supported to develop. Unannounced lesson observations, with lesson gradings or not, create a debilitating culture of fear. Watching teaching ‘Big Brother’ style invariably drives up workload and only encourages panic planning. It can make our workload feel insurmountable and even thankless.

6. Slim down the school development plan. We all know that every new initiative brings new work for teachers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if the new initiatives keep on coming, the workload burden can become mountainous. With each well-meaning leader being attached to the new initiative, the likelihood of it being dropped for having too little impact is often low. Instead, we need to ensure each new policy is reviewed not just for impact, but also to evaluate impact of teacher workload. And, crucially, if it doesn’t work, drop it!

'Outcomes...normally we just measure the height of the files.'

‘Outcomes…normally we just measure the height of the files.’

7. Focus on high quality, sustained CPD. Mocksteds and the like may ensure compliance, but they don’t improve teaching and learning. The best thing we can do in schools is to leverage high quality CPD for teachers to improve learning. Happily, it has a by-product of reducing workload. With a regular ‘rhythm’ of CPD, with useable tools and expertise, we can support teachers to undertake collaborative planning. This reduces the workload burden. Also, in all likelihood, it increases the likelihood of consistent success, thereby making teaching feel more worthwhile and making the hard work feel meaningful. read about the DfE CPD Standard HERE.

8. Find creases of time (and money) to properly celebrate success. It is too easy, amidst all of our pressures in schools, to always work hard and forget to have fun. We work hard all year, celebrate our students’ success on results day, and then it all starts again once more. We barely linger to celebrate our efforts. We need to more consciously cultivate creases of time to reflect upon our efforts and successes. Even small moments of doing so can prove nourishing for us.

9. Design a reliable and highly effective cover system. Approaches to cover for teachers can prove variable from school to school. We all know that there is little worse than planning your ‘free’ to plan, meet and whatever else, and then you are called upon to do some cover. Many schools have maintained hard won rights regarding cover, but others draw upon teacher time regularly. Though we cannot eliminate cover, we can forward plan our model so that it isn’t a regular occurrence and so that we avoid nasty surprises. At Huntington, we have a great cover team, with our SLT do as much cover as is possible, saving a huge amount of money with strategic forward planning. We needn’t let the bad old days of regular cover return.

10. Draw upon the ‘wisdom of crowds’. The best teaching and learning innovations happen in the classroom, but they too seldom reach the top of the senior leadership agenda. Fast, easy channels of feedback from teachers on the frontline can better save time and tweak our schools practices. Executives at Toyota know the power of their frontline workers, so they ensure any employee in the Toyota Production System has the authority to stop the process to signal a quality issue. Can we say the same of our school or schools? Can we mitigate workload issues by drawing upon solutions from our teaching staff?


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Image via Jenni C via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ipdegirl/7827785878.


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