Workload audit: Thirty questions for your school

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We all know that teachers work well beyond their designated hours, but just how can heads help to adjust the work/life balance for their staff? Drawing on the government’s Workload Survey and expert working groups, Suzanne O’Connell poses 30 self-evaluation questions for schools

In February 2017, the Teacher Workload Survey 2016 was published. This was the first in the promised series of research into teacher workload to be published by the Department for Education (DfE) every two years.

This online survey provided detailed evidence of the long hours teachers are working and their views about it. It showed that more than a third of all primary teachers worked more than 60 hours in the reference week compared to a quarter of those in secondary schools. Other main findings included:

  • The average total, self-reported working hours for all classroom teachers and middle leaders was 54.4 hours.
  • Primary classroom teachers reported more hours (55.5) than teachers in secondary schools (53.5).
  • Secondary school senior leaders reported longer working hours (62.1) than those in primary schools (59.8).
  • Primary teachers with less than six years’ experience reported working 18.8 hours per week outside of school hours – two hours more than more experienced colleagues.

As important as any of the statistics relating to the work actually done, was teachers’ attitudes to it. Ninety three per cent reported in the survey that workload was at least a fairly serious problem in their school and 52 per cent that it was a very serious problem.

Most staff disagreed that they:

  • Can complete their workload in their contracted hours.
  • Have an acceptable workload.
  • Can achieve a good balance between their work and private life.

More than three-quarters of staff were dissatisfied with the number of hours they usually worked.

At an individual level

The survey found that what stood out most was that workload was not necessarily carried across the board in one school. Factors affecting individual teachers seemed to have more impact than generic ones across the school. From this result, the researchers conclude that it is most important for schools to target individual teachers.

The report states: “The vast majority of variation in workload occurs at the individual teacher level rather than the school level. Rather, effective support and guidance would need to target teachers across the population of schools.”

Therefore school leaders should keep a close eye on the burdens of individual teachers, particularly those at the beginning of their career. However, there are also some generic approaches heads and their leadership teams might take.

Eliminating the unnecessary

The Teacher Workload Survey hasn’t been the first attempt by the DfE to get to grips with the working life of teachers. During October and November 2015, the DfE undertook the Workload Challenge to investigate further the tasks perceived as causing the most unnecessary workload. The three tasks identified were:

  • Marking (53 per cent).
  • Planning and preparation (34 per cent).
  • Data collection (56 per cent).

In March 2016, in response to the DfE’s Workload Challenge, three documents were published to help schools address the issues identified. These had been compiled by expert working groups commissioned by the DfE:

  • Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking.
  • Eliminating unnecessary workload around planning and teaching resources.
  • Eliminating unnecessary workload associated with data management.

Each report, by an independent teacher workload review group, outlines recommendations for school leaders, the DfE and teachers themselves. Taken from each report, we have set some questions that headteachers might ask of their schools in a bid to restore work/life balance.

Ways of addressing marking

In the Teacher Workload Survey 2016, 76 per cent of primary teachers said that they spent too much time marking and correcting pupils’ work and
42 per cent that they spent far too much time doing this. Ten key questions to ask:

  1. Do you believe that the school’s marking policy makes unreasonable demands on staff?
  2. Do your teachers believe that the marking policy make unreasonable demands on them? How do you know?
  3. Does marking primarily respond to pupils’ needs or is it for other audiences?
  4. Are marking practices: meaningful, manageable and motivating?
  5. Does the marking policy advance pupil progress and outcomes?
  6. Are variations in marking practice encouraged to suit the subject and task?
  7. Are teachers spending more time on marking than the children are on their work?
  8. Are teachers using the full range of feedback including spoken, peer-marking and self-assessment?
  9. Is marking practice consulted upon as part of your assessment policy in partnership with teachers and governors?
  10. Do you challenge emerging fads when it comes to marking and filter out what’s unnecessary?

The report recommends that schools review practices that require extensive written comments and reminds schools that Ofsted does not expect to see a particular type of marking practice. What Ofsted inspectors will consider is whether written and oral feedback is used to promote learning.

Ways of addressing planning and resources

In the Teacher Workload Survey 2016, 79 per cent of primary teachers said that they spent too much time on the individual planning or preparation of lessons either at school or out of school. Just over half (53 per cent) of teachers agreed that the resources available at their school helped them to plan teaching and learning of high quality. Nearly one-quarter (24 per cent) disagreed with this. Ten key questions to ask:

  1. Who uses the plans that teachers prepare and for what purpose?
  2. Are teachers’ plans helping to improve pupil outcomes?
  3. Are teachers able to chose the best format for their working plans?
  4. Do teachers have access to good-quality schemes of work?
  5. Are high-quality resources available, such as textbooks, that can support teaching and reduce workload?
  6. Are there opportunities for collaborative planning?
  7. Does planning focus on a sequence of lessons rather than writing individual lesson plans?
  8. Are any plans produced only for outside organisations?
  9. Are blocks of time set aside for planning purposes?
  10. Is there high-quality training and professional development available for teachers?

The report recommends that detailed daily or weekly plans should not be a routine expectation and that the school leadership team should not automatically require the same planning format across the school. Schools should regularly review the plans that teachers are asked to produce, the reasons for them and the effectiveness of their routine practice. Ofsted does not require schools to provide individual lesson plans during an inspection or for previous lessons.

Ways of addressing data management

The Teacher Workload Survey found that nine out of 10 teachers took up more than two and a half hours recording, inputting, monitoring and analysing data in relation to pupil performance and for other purposes.

Data was included under the heading “general administrative work” for the purpose of the survey. Seventy-three per cent of primary teachers indicated that they spent too much time on recording, inputting, monitoring and analysing data in relation to pupil performance and for other purposes.

The collection and analysis of data can easily become a task for its own sake. What the review group emphasises is the importance of pausing, at least annually, to consider whether the systems you have established are still fit-for-purpose.

They recommend that teachers should “collect the minimum amount of data required to help evaluate how they are doing”. Ten key questions to ask:

  1. Can other existing processes be used to provide the information needed?
  2. Is there duplication in the way that data is collected? Is more than one person involved in collecting the same data?
  3. Why is the data needed? Are we clear about exactly why we are collecting this data and what it will be used for?
  4. Will its collection improve outcomes for children?
  5. Are data collection and analysis systems regularly reviewed?
  6. How long does data collection and analysis take? Could that time be better spent on something else?
  7. Has the removal of “levels” led to less pressure in terms of the use of elaborate tracking systems?
  8. Is the data valid, does it provide a reliable and defensible measure of educational attainment?
  9. Does the data help us progress as a school?
  10. Are we getting the right data, to the right people, at the right time to make the right decision?

The report also recommends that:

  • Schools make a data collection calendar that they update annually.
  • Formative assessment should not be routinely collected at school level.
  • Schools take advantage of technology and use systems and software packages that reduce workload. 


  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

  • The Teacher Workload Survey 2016, February 2017, Higton et al, Department for Education: http://bit.ly/2q6iOz9
  • Eliminating Unnecessary Workload around Marking, Workload Challenge Working Group Report, Department for Education: http://bit.ly/2olNzUo
  • Eliminating unnecessary workload around planning and teaching resources, Workload Challenge Working Group Report, Department for Education: http://bit.ly/2olPKr1
  • Eliminating unnecessary workload associated with data management, Workload Challenge Working Group Report, Department for Education: http://bit.ly/1TXdDeU


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