Four ideas to tackle workload in your school

Written by: Graham Cooper | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Teacher workloads have always been heavy but the pandemic has added to the strain. Former deputy head Graham Cooper suggests some practical approaches to cut down on time-consuming tasks and give teachers more time

If I asked you why you went into teaching, you would almost certainly tell me it was to make a difference to the children in your classroom. It would not be because you wanted to spend your evenings writing lengthy comments in multiple exercise books, or your weekends trawling the web for an engaging activity about the Roman invasions.

Naturally, these tasks come with the territory, but all too often they take longer than necessary and can spill over into your free time. Pressures from tasks such as lesson-planning, marking and communication can add to the workload, hinder staff wellbeing and raise the inevitable question: “Is this really what I went into teaching to do?”

Shifting the balance

Easing the burden on teachers has taken on a new urgency during the pandemic. A National Education Union survey published in the spring, found that 70 per cent of its members questionedreported increased workload over the last 12 months and 95 per cent were worried about the impact on their wellbeing.

Now that the focus is on helping pupils recover, it is no longer a question of simply lightening the load. Teachers need proven strategies to help them minimise the time they spend on administration so they can dedicate more time to supporting pupils – and looking after themselves.

With this in mind, I would like to share four practical suggestions put forward by colleagues who have years of experience as teachers and school leaders.

By asking staff to contribute to these changes, you will get everyone on board with your school’s new, more efficient ways of working, and teachers will have more time to do what they entered the profession for – to teach.

The aim of these tips is to challenge current practices in a bid to free up more time for teachers.

Prioritise routine tasks – keep, tweak or abandon

It is all too easy to assume that everyday administrative tasks are part and parcel of a teacher’s life, and it is quite likely that with all the changes schools have had to manage during the pandemic, new tasks have been added to everyone’s to do list.

Now is the perfect time to do a review of which tasks are currently eating up staff time so you can make change happen. At this point, you may be sighing heavily and thinking that a task review sounds like just another task – but it is actually quick to achieve and has long-lasting results.

Ask everyone on your team to write down six administrative tasks they do every day. Then ask them to rank the tasks from high to low in terms of the time and effort they take to complete – and their impact on teaching and learning. Finally ask everyone to comment on what they think would be the consequences on teaching and learning if they stopped doing the task/s.

This will give you a list of low-effort/high-impact tasks which you can keep, and a list of high-effort/low-impact tasks to tweak or abandon.

Make marking and feedback count – in less time

A positive comment or a piece of constructive guidance on a child’s work can build confidence and help them reach their learning goals. But marking and feedback can eat up time for teachers and throw their work/life balance off course.

One approach is replacing labour-intensive written comments with a system of symbols which are easy to identify and quick to draw.

Ask teaching staff across your school to create a list of the comments they use most frequently when marking children’s work across a range of subjects. Next, work with colleagues to create a symbol that can be substituted across the school for each comment on the list.

Instead of “that’s a great example” you could use a smiley face. Or rather than “try to keep your writing within the margins”, draw two lines.

When these symbols are more deeply embedded in your school’s marking system, you can encourage the children to use them in evaluating their own work and that of their peers in a peer-reviewing process.

This will help children take a more active role in their own progress while reducing the time teachers spend on detailed distance marking.

Do more with your curriculum planning time

Teachers dedicate hours of their lives to planning during the evenings, weekends and holidays, which takes its toll on their workload and wellbeing.

Planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time is an important part of the working week, but in a busy school it can be hard for teachers to take stock and prepare. It might be that by implementing a few small changes, your teachers would get more from their PPA time.

This could involve shifting someone’s PPA time to the morning when there are likely to be fewer interruptions, or giving teachers a longer session every fortnight rather than shorter ones once a week. Alternatively, it might make a world of difference if your teachers could work collaboratively during these sessions.

Carry out a straw poll by putting up a notice in the staffroom or sending out an email to ask teachers what one thing would help them get more from their PPA time. Then check back in with your staff to let them know if and when you can accommodate their suggestions.

Set up a workshop session and invite everyone to come with an example of a great lesson and the impact it had, as well as an example of a lesson that didn’t work so well, and some thoughts on why. This is a positive way to share best practice and saves teachers reinventing the wheel in their planning.

Communicate more efficiently

Good communication has taken on a whole new importance in the age of coronavirus, with schools having to keep staff informed of urgent messages relating to health matters, absences, rotas and changing guidelines. However, if you mark every email “urgent”, people will soon switch-off.

Draw up a quick questionnaire to ask everyone which the best way is to contact them for an urgent message. Then ask which way they prefer to hear about a news item or an event announcement.

Give them a range of options such as a phone call, email or text message. You could also suggest other tools that your school may use, such as Slack, WhatsApp or a school app.

When you have your answers, set out a standard communications method for urgent and non-urgent messages.

People are likely to have strong preferences, so bear in mind you will not be able to please everyone, but this will help select the best options for the majority.

Ask everyone to stick with those communication channels if possible, as this will simplify the way you communicate, eliminate duplication and ultimately save time.

  • Graham Cooper is a former school leader who is now chief marketing officer at Juniper Education. Juniper has published a set of free resources aimed at primary school leaders and offering more ideas on how to save time.Visit

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