Eliminating unnecessary workload

The ‘Workload Challenge’ consultation ran between 22 October and 21 November 2014. In February 2015 the analysis of this survey was published. The survey asked three main questions about workload:

  1. Tell us about the unnecessary and unproductive tasks which take up too much of your time. Where do these come from?
  2. Send us your solutions and strategies for tackling workload – what works well in your school?
  3. What do you think should be done to tackle unnecessary workload – by government, by schools or by others?

The consultation received 43,832 responses in total, but only 16,820 respondents answered all three open-ended questions about workload. A systematically selected sample of 10% of the full responses was selected for detailed analysis, equating to 1,685 survey respondents.

Of course, many of the things teachers do outside of teaching classes aren’t entirely ‘unnecessary’ and ‘unproductive’ – the analysis noted that many tasks were identified by teachers as related to essential parts of working within a school, but that the time and volume of the tasks were so great that they were unable to complete them even when working much longer than their contracted hours.

The report identified unwarranted ‘detail’, ‘duplication’ and ‘bureaucracy’ as key elements of excessive workload. These related most often to lesson planning, assessment (including marking) and reporting administration (82%).

Teachers reported that the key drivers of workload were perceived requirements of Ofsted / accountability (53%) and tasks set by school leaders (51%).

In response the DFE set up an Independent Teacher Workload Review Group. This group has recently released three reports looking at Data Management, Planning and Resources, and Marking. There are some interesting discussions about the causes of excessive workload in each of these areas – but I’ll simply list some of the key recommendations first:

Eliminating unnecessary workload associated with data management

The report recommends that only data which is ‘purposeful, valid and reliable’ should be collected. One of the issues it identifies is what they call ‘gold-plating’ – collecting everything ‘just in case’ it is needed for accountability purposes. Where the collection of data becomes an end in itself the report suggests it is not simply unnecessary, it is damaging. It also recommends that summative data should not normally be collected more than three times a year per pupil.

Poor data, for example tracking based on formative assessment, can provide a ‘false comfort’. It gives the false impression that a numerical measure of pupil progress can be tracked and used to draw a wide range of conclusions about pupil and teacher performance when the data are flawed (i.e. neither reliable or valid).

Schools should use data in the format available – Ofsted, for example, does not require data in any particular format – and the report suggests that school leaders actively avoid asking for the duplicate collection of data. In short ‘collect once, use many times.’

The report suggests that schools should analyse the cumulative impact on workload of new initiatives before implementing new data collection systems.  It also suggests that schools should be prepared to stop an activity which is time-consuming and has limited value: i.e. not assume that collection or analysis must continue just because it always has

Eliminating unnecessary workload around planning and teaching resources

The report argues that teachers spend too long planning and resourcing lessons. It makes a key distinction between ‘the daily lesson plan’ and ‘lesson planning’. It suggests that school leaders requiring the production of ‘daily written lesson plans’ are using them as proxy evidence for an accountability ‘paper trail’ rather than an effective process of planning for pupil progress and attainment. The report identifies the reaction of school leaders to the real and perceived demands made by Government and Ofsted as a principal cause of this. This unnecessary accountability paperwork often becomes a fairly pointless ‘box-ticking’ exercise and creates a ‘false comfort’ of purpose (the mere appearance of ‘doing something’ to raise school standards).

Perhaps the main issue with resourcing is teachers having to ‘reinvent the wheel’ in the absence of good quality textbooks and fully-resourced schemes of work. Once collaboratively developed schemes of work are in place, the report suggests that individual teachers should be free to teach in a way informed by their professional judgement and experience.

The report discusses some of the cultural mistrust of textbooks in many English schools. This cultural bias is one factor driving increased workload and the report argues that a cultural shift is required – one where high-quality textbooks are seen as part of a recipe – a useful base but still requiring the flair of the chef.

A great deal the recent escalation in workload here is probably due to the rapid changes in curriculum and specifications over the past few years. The report suggests that the DFE should commit to providing sufficient lead-in times for changes for which the sector will have to undertake significant planning to implement.

Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking

The report argues that providing written feedback on pupils’ work has become disproportionately valued by schools and has become unnecessarily burdensome for teachers. It sums up as ‘deep marking’ some of this unnecessary practice – which covers lots of varieties of this practice like dialogic marking, triple marking and quality marking. It suggests decisions by school leaders regarding marking have been in response to distorted ideas about Assessment for Learning and the presence of Ofsted reports which praised particular methods of marking.

The report suggests that ineffective marking looks like this:

  • It usually involves an excessive reliance on the labour intensive practices under our definition of deep marking, such as extensive written comments in different colour pens, or the indication of when verbal feedback has been given by adding ‘VF’ on a pupil’s work.
  • It can be disjointed from the learning process, failing to help pupils improve their understanding. This can be because work is set and marked to a false timetable, and based on a policy of following a mechanistic timetable, rather than responding to pupils’ needs.
  • It can be dispiriting, for both teacher and pupil, by failing to encourage and engender motivation and resilience.
  • It can be unmanageable for teachers, and teachers forced to mark work late at night and at weekends are unlikely to operate effectively in the classroom.

It also makes the point that there is little robust evidence to support the current widespread practice of extensive written comments (an EEF review is looking at existing evidence on marking and identifying gaps in research – and should be published fairly soon) . They recommend that school leaders should also challenge emerging ‘fads’ that indirectly impose excessive marking practices on schools.

The report suggests that effective marking is ‘meaningful’, ‘manageable’ and ‘motivating’:

  • Meaningful: marking varies by age group, subject, and what works best for the pupil and teacher in relation to any particular piece of work. Teachers are encouraged to adjust their approach as necessary and trusted to incorporate the outcomes into subsequent planning and teaching.
  • Manageable: marking practice is proportionate and considers the frequency and complexity of written feedback, as well as the cost and time-effectiveness of marking in relation to the overall workload of teachers. This is written into any assessment policy.
  • Motivating: Marking should help to motivate pupils to progress. This does not mean always writing in-depth comments or being universally positive: sometimes short, challenging comments or oral feedback are more effective. If the teacher is doing more work than their pupils, this can become a disincentive for pupils to accept challenges and take responsibility for improving their work.

What causes excessive workload for teachers?

The report identifies many plausible reasons why workload has become so unmanageable for school teachers over recent years, for example:

  • Rapid changes to curriculum, exam specification and school structures arising from the DFE
  • Historical demands from Ofsted and the perception of ‘what Ofsted wants’
  • School leaders ‘gold-plating’ the evidence they think they ‘might need’ to justify their decisions

However, in my opinion it perhaps misses a key driver for this workload. In ‘What’s driving workload in schools?’, I suggest that excessive demands made upon teachers arise from the inherent uncertainty for school leaders and teachers created by high-stakes judgements made about their effectiveness or capability arising from measures of school or teacher performance which lack validity and reliability. The education white paper (Educational Excellence Everywhere) makes a proposal which might help: to remove the separate Ofsted judgements for Teaching and Learning from future inspections. This seems a pragmatic move – given T&L grades tend to correlate with student achievement anyway, I’m not sure the separate grade often tells school leaders very much – and this might further undermine the distortion to planning, marking and assessment which are so very often given spurious justification by ‘what Ofsted wants’.

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3 Responses to Eliminating unnecessary workload

  1. julietgreen says:

    I think you’re bang on in your analysis. It hasn’t been helped by vague statements from Ofsted such as ‘no particular volume or frequency’. All that does is leave SLs free to continue to demand the volume and frequency they think is necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bingo! A great analysis of the excessive workload on teachers…

    Liked by 1 person

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