Work is not a curse, but drudgery is!

Henry Ward Beecher

To much fanfare in the press, the DfE has released the findings of its Workload Challenge survey. The idea is straightforward: to prevent teachers from getting “bogged down with unnecessary tasks” so that they can instead devote their time to “prepar[ing] young people for life in modern Britain”.

Apparently, the survey generated more than 44,000 returns. The chief culprits for the waste of teachers’ time are Ofsted, government and “hours spent recording data, marking and lesson-planning.” No surprises there then.

Here’s the government’s solution:

As well as continuing its commitment to regular myth busting publications, Ofsted will not “change their handbook or framework during the school year, except when absolutely necessary” and will commit to further slim down the Inspection Handbook. If anyone’s wondering why Ofsted might find it “absolutely necessary” to change their handbook during the school year or add dozens of additional pages to the handbook in knee-jerk response to Trojan farce and British values, we need look no further than the DfE.

The government’s commitment to reducing workload consists of:

  • giving schools more notice of significant changes to the curriculum, exams and accountability, and not making changes to qualifications in the academic year or during a course, unless there are urgent reasons for doing so
  • making it easier for teachers to find examples of what works in other schools, and research about the best way to do things like marking, data management and planning by bringing together a central repository of evidence
  • support for headteachers to carry out their demanding jobs by reviewing all leadership training, including reviewing the opportunities available for coaching and mentoring for leaders
  • tracking teacher workload over the coming years by carrying out a large scale, robust survey in early spring 2016, and every 2 years from then.

Whilst all this is very nice, I don’t see it helping much. It seems punch-in-the-face obvious that changing the curriculum, exams, accountability measures etc. mid-year is the act of a confederacy of dunces. The idea that such premature change might have been enacted when there were not “urgent reasons for doing so” is mind boggling. That this caveat needed inserting gives me no confidence that further mid-year change will not be deemed “urgent”.

The proposed central repository which will contain research and examples of “the best way to do things like marking, data management and planning” might turn out to be a time-saver, but I doubt it. More likely it will turn out to be a blend of the kind of fatuous half-truths pedalled by the EEF and the arrant nonsense Ofsted purports to be ‘best practice‘. But, even if it this repository were to genuinely hold evidence on how best to teach etc. it would, I imagine, largely be ignored wherever it conflicted with our values.

The final two points are unlikely to make any difference at all for classroom teachers, but at least they’re unlikely to actually add much to their workload.

If the government really wanted to reduce workload, here are three things it could be doing:

  1. Never ever introduce a policy predicated on the idea that teachers can, or should, do more than they are already doing. Teachers are at capacity. No one is holding a bit back to cope with the next cockamamie initiative. Any policy which ignores this advice will either fail or prevent teachers from spending time on some other, presumably worthwhile, activity. It might really help if someone in the DfE got an economist to explain opportunity cost to them.
  2. If you add something to teachers’ workload, take something else away. And go about it explicitly so that no one is confused about what they should or shouldn’t be doing. If it’s deemed absolutely essential for children to learn about, say, British values, what are they going to stop having curriculum time spent on? If teachers absolutely must be held account for meeting targets based on spurious data or triple mark their books, what will they be required to stop doing?
  3. Hold school leaders to account for teachers’ well-being. It is morally reprehensible that teachers are expected to sacrifice their home lives to make space for work demands that cannot be met during the school day. Every teacher I’ve spoken to over the last couple of years agrees that their marking load has increased considerably over the past 5 years. I doubt whether this enormous increase in effort has resulted much in the way of increased attainment. But it’s certainly had an impact on teachers’ well-being. Students’ outcomes are vitally important, but they should never come at the cost of teachers’ health and well-being.

If teachers cannot mark their books during their 1,265 hours of contracted hours, school leaders should focus on trying to reduce the demands on their time. Just adding more to that pernicious addendum,”such reasonable additional hours as may be necessary to enable the effective discharge of the teacher’s professional duties” is destined to erode the unwritten agreement that every teacher gives many times more than they are ever renumerated for. If everything teachers do during contracted hours turns out to be utterly essential (SPOILER: it won’t) then the expectation of how much time can be spent marking must be reduced.

The consequences of ignoring this advice are clear: more and more teachers will jump ship. As W. H. Auden said,

In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it: they must not do too much of it: and they must have a sense of success in it — not a doubtful sense, such as needs some testimony of others for its confirmation, but a sure sense, or rather knowledge, that so much work has been done well, and fruitfully done, whatever the world may say or think about it.

Teachers’ workload and job satisfaction ought to be a central concern for the proposed College of Teaching.