What to do about workload?

//What to do about workload?

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.

2015-03-11T09:33:00+00:00February 7th, 2015|leadership|


  1. Warren Valentine February 7, 2015 at 11:35 am - Reply

    My, admittedly, rather limited experiences seem to suggest that senior leaders are catching on to the idea that they can’t add work and expect things to be taken away. The real problems exist with middle leadership. Most are promoted off the back of everything they do outside of the “normal school day” and then they expect the same of others. This a particular issue when teachers are increasingly teaching across subject boundaries, and thus across several middle managers without any co-ordination of their expectations.
    This has led to more than one teacher I know having been told that it is an “expectation” that they use their half term to mark certain pieces of work and there has to be a “payback” for lighter planning for some courses such as Extended Projects, with little consideration of the workloads already implicitly expected from other middle managers.

    • David Didau February 7, 2015 at 1:27 pm - Reply

      I’m delighted to think that senior leaders have become enlightened but I’m afriad that if middle leaders are abusing their positions by unreasoinably adding to teachers’ workloads then that is the fault and the responsibility of senior leaders.

  2. Michael Tidd February 7, 2015 at 11:52 am - Reply

    The problem with 1 & 2 of your suggestions it’s that neither of those things are within the department’s control. It is school leaders who dictate most of those things, which is why workload issues vary so much by school.

    • David Didau February 7, 2015 at 1:29 pm - Reply

      You’re right – to a degree. But government is hardly so helpless and we let them off at our peril. If schools were held to acount by the DfE for these things then that might go some way towards solving the problem.

  3. David Longman February 7, 2015 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    With you on this discussion!

    In addition, perhaps we should add a fourth idea to your list that managing and reducing teachers’ workloads so as to improve effectiveness should be both a key aim of the proposed College of Teachers and a key issue over which in might demonstrate its hoped-for independence (and in saying that I am bearing in mind your somewhat pessimistic critique of the proposed College of Teachers). After all if 44K teachers are basically saying ‘help we can’t breathe’ then the CoT could/should strive to rescue them

    Another strategy also might be to replicate those TV shows where company leaders go back to the shop floor. Shouldn’t all school ‘leaders’ be required to do say 1 month a year as a classroom teacher (add this as a supplement to your third point)?

  4. asensibleteacher February 7, 2015 at 12:51 pm - Reply

    Perhaps it would all be more believable if the pledge to stop introducing change mid year or mid course was a straightforward pledge with no caveat, if the Ofsted guidance and SLT training were followed by checks to ensure that they were being actively implemented in schools, if the next survey in two years time was clearly being used as a deadline, a benchmark for when workload is expected to be significantly improved. That’s a lot of “if’s”…

  5. Caseby's Casebook February 7, 2015 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this post. I’m currently drafting our school wellbeing policy and these principles are already included. The problem is, as you say, the sheer extent of the changes we must make at the moment which are dictated externally. School Leaders can navigate a way through, but the additional workload is unavoidable.

    • Teresa Roche February 7, 2015 at 1:48 pm - Reply

      Staff or student or both? We have one available from our website. Interested in staff version.

  6. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  7. Anonymous February 7, 2015 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    Middle leaders have to do what senior leaders tell them to. Top down in most schools, remember.

  8. whatonomy February 7, 2015 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    I think politicians have a good grasp of the opportunity cost concept. Unfortunately, I suspect they don’t focus on the overall benefit to a child’s learning experience. Rather, consciously or otherwise, they measure the cost of an initiative against short-term gains in political capital. Teacher voice needs to rise in volume and credibility against populist politicking.

  9. functionalise February 7, 2015 at 7:18 pm - Reply

    An insightful read, as a programme manager I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place – you are damned if you do the work in your evenings and weekends to the exclusion of any form of personal life because that is a sign that you are not managing competently, but you are damned if you don’t, my line manager has said on many occasion that as a teacher you should expect to work outside your 37 hours – if you choose to leave at 17:00 you expect to take work home…
    Thank you David, more food for thought!

    • David Didau February 8, 2015 at 2:03 pm - Reply

      Your line manager is very much part of the problem.

  10. Dianne February 7, 2015 at 7:30 pm - Reply

    I wholeheartedly agree that something has got to give; and give now! The trouble is, no one seems to be standing up for us in ways that make a real difference! We all know that workload has gone through the roof during the last couple of years, but what we need is for someone to make your proposals law. Someone in government to tell SLT across the country that they must not expect teachers to work weekends, evenings and holidays. Oh to be able to turn the computer off at 5, close exercise books and put down pens safe in the knowledge that there will be no repercussions just teachers who are fit to teach and actually enjoy going to work once more!

  11. Sian Bloor February 7, 2015 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    And which body is going to be responsible for ensuring Headteachers cut workload? If it’s local authorities, at least there is some accountability, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on academies! We already have resource repositories available to us, in the form of TES resources, The Echo Chamber, ReaserchEd and other annual conferences. Teachers already do it for themselves and will do it better than the Government because it’s theirs! Great blog David, agree with everything you’ve said here. From the bottom up however, teachers need to learn to say NO!

  12. MDrury February 7, 2015 at 8:54 pm - Reply

    This article is bang on – absolutely to the heart of the matter. Where I work it has been ignored for so long, I almost forgot how ridiculous the whole debacle is!

    School Leadership do have some responsibility for this as do middle leaders but it the end it’s all down to the Government, Ofsted and its latest whim. When schools are put under such outrageous pressures to tick whichever boxes it is at any given moment, nobody has any choice but to try and achieve what is often impossible and usually crazy. No choice.

    Authorities need to be more open-minded about what good progress is for our pupils. Schools need more freedom in terms how to go about making it and your point about staff well-being is exactly right – we’ll continue to have a regular high turnover of staff until policy makers accept that what we have right now is unsustainable.

    Sadly, for political reasons, I don’t think this Government is serious about standards of education in this country, only about short-term political victories. Therefore I see no change on the horizon.

  13. Unconquerable soul February 7, 2015 at 11:09 pm - Reply

    Disappointed to see that no-one is thinking about what it takes to secure success for every child. Isn’t that why we all came into the profession? It is indeed a lot of work, but it’s never dull. SLTs do need to keep en eye on the sum of the parts though. Equally, teachers need to come up with suggestions for how they might achieve fantastic outcomes for children in different ways. Collectively, we have a wealth of creative talent between us.

    • Beccy February 8, 2015 at 3:46 pm - Reply

      In my opinion teachers still focus most of their time and energy on securing the best results for every student. I think the debate is a direct result of concern that much of what we are asked to spend our time doing by leadership and government is not meeting these ends. I think that David’s blog posts are an excellent example of how teachers reflect and come up with ideas to achieve fantastic outcomes for their students in different ways.

  14. Beccy February 8, 2015 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    In a recent observation I was told that it was understood that I already worked excessive hours so to make the required improvements to my next observation target I should keep a store of extension tasks in my head to reel out when needed. Thus negating the need to plan. It had previously been made clear to me that it was understood that I was teaching this class under extreme circumstance imposed by management decisions and I could expect full support in all my efforts. I am resigned to the fact that it is likely that this will be but one example of confused responses to efforts to reduce workload. A mixture of a lack of management skill and lack of resources are to blame in reality. All but one of the staff who used to be support staff in previous teaching generations now add to staff workload in my school. Phoning me up several times a lesson. Removing students from my room for pastoral interventions. Complaining to me that I need their support. Telling me my requests for behaviour management support are in their opinion unnecessary. Threatening to lock staff in the building because they are a few minutes late in leaving their classrooms at the end of their in school working day. Sometimes it is not their fault it is what they are directed to do or they have not been given the appropriate training to feel able to support me. So that when you get real genuine support to do your job or an effective team working relationship you really value it.

  15. Stephen February 8, 2015 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    Agree that we should aim to complete everything in the regular work day. However those staff who depart at 3.15 with the kids (and there really are genuine reasons for some staff to do this) should obviously expect to put that added time in out of work hours without it being seen as ‘over and above’.

    • David Didau February 8, 2015 at 6:48 pm - Reply

      Do you have any reason to believe that this is not the case?

      • Nim DiRicci (@Nimstar) February 8, 2015 at 11:47 pm - Reply

        I am one of these people – as a single mum I leave school twice a week at 3.30 (my school day finishes at 3) to get my daughter from her own school. I more than make up for it by working from 8-10.30+ *every* night, not just the two days I leave “early”. I also work a fair few hours over the weekend, like pretty much every teacher I know.

        • David Didau February 9, 2015 at 7:59 am - Reply

          I’m prety sure that’s the norm. The attitude of school leaders towards parents (single or otherwise) who want to leave school early to have some interaction with their own children can be deplorable. No one survives in teaching without comitting considerable time to planning & marking no matter the time they exit the building.

          Placing additional demands on this time serves no one well.

          • Nim DiRicci (@Nimstar) February 9, 2015 at 8:28 pm

            Incidently the tips you gave during the talk at my school recently has helped shave off some book marking time – thank you!

  16. Clive Candy February 9, 2015 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    It’s the fact that so many of the hours that classroom teachers put in are unseen and off premises that is the problem. Management, many of whom have light timetables and who are able to get their work done in their office during the school day, see others leaving before them and are resentful.

    Contriving to leave at same time as the head and being able to go home without a pile of marking, lessons to prepare or reports to write doesn’t mean you are any harder working or committed to the school than those who leave work at 3.30pm and start working again at home at 7.00pm.

  17. charliebritten February 21, 2015 at 10:51 pm - Reply

    The problem is just the same in FE. Today (Saturday, following half term week), I have already worked 3 hours marking and I need to do another 3 hours tomorrow. This is typical. The marking has grown exponentially over the last few years, BTEC regulations adding to our workload and stressload enormously. As we are expecting an Ofsted visit, our line manager asked us to complete a mountain of paperwork over half term, but we haven’t been able to do any of it because we had to move out of our staffroom into another staffroom during the half term break.

    I want to get out of teaching. As soon as possible.

  18. […] David Didau (@learningspyder) geeft 3 concrete voorstellen om als beleid met werkdruk om te gaan: […]

  19. […] the government issued its Workload Challenge earlier in the year, thousands of teachers got in touch to complain about the burdensome, […]

  20. […] the recent attempts by the Department for Education to be seen to be listening to teachers’ anxiety about workload and the Herculean efforts by […]

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