Reducing teacher workload: Four key areas to review

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

From scheduling to marking, school leaders looking to reduce the workload burden for their staff should review four key areas of school life. Matt Bromley explains

The teaching profession is a leaky sieve and the prevalence of unfulfilled teaching posts as well as a growth in the numbers of unqualified teachers in our schools is proving both costly and damaging.

In 2016, one in 10 teachers left the profession. Of these, an increasing proportion left for other sectors rather than retiring, suggesting working conditions are driving them out (DfE, 2017).

Furthermore, data from the latest School Workforce Census (DfE, 2019) show that drop-out rates of young graduate teachers are rising and each year’s graduates are more likely to leave the profession than the previous year’s – 85 per cent of 2017 graduates were still in the profession after one year, compared to 88 per cent of 2011 graduates.

And, although there are myriad reasons why teachers quit the classroom, topping the table in almost every survey is workload.

According to a National Audit Office study (NAO, 2017), 67 per cent of school leaders reported that workload is a barrier to teacher retention. Meanwhile, a report commissioned by the Department for Education – Factors affecting teacher retention (DfE, 2018a) – found that workload remained the most important factor influencing teachers’ decisions to quit and most solutions to addressing retention were linked in some way to workload.

So, what is the solution? There are, I think, four key areas of school life that primary school headteachers might wish to consider in order to improve both the nature and the amount of work that teachers have to do. These are as follows:

  1. Leadership practices.
  2. Scheduling.
  3. Marking and data.
  4. Change management

1, Leadership practices

The government undoubtedly has a part to play in reducing teacher workload by reviewing the demands it places on schools through its high-stakes accountability system – as highlighted in a letter from the former education secretary Damian Hinds in which he said the DfE wanted “to do more work to reduce the pressures on school leaders (and) build on (the DfE’s) commitments to simplify accountability and provide stability in the curriculum and qualifications” (Hinds, 2018).

However, most of the workload demands that teachers face come from school leaders not policy-makers – even if they are seemingly driven by policy. So, what can school leaders do to improve their teachers’ health and wellbeing, reduce workload and improve work/life balance?

First, headteachers need to create a culture that promotes healthy lifestyles and that supports those who feel stressed. This culture must also provide plentiful opportunities for teachers to engage in high-quality professional development that equips them with the skills they need to perform their duties and provides a safe space in which to take risks and make mistakes.

Second, headteachers need to think carefully about the impact their own behaviours and actions might have on teachers’ wellbeing and workload, particularly about how they manage the process of change and communicate their expectations with consistency, clarity and fairness – thus avoiding the law of unintended consequences.

Perhaps one of the quickest wins in the quest to reduce teacher workload is to review the way in which, how often and why you communicate with staff, and indeed expect staff to communicate with others. Let’s consider, by way of example, email...

Not only do staff emails take time to read and respond to, they often lead to additional workload. And, what is more, emails can invade a teacher’s privacy, pinging at all times of day and night, including at weekends and during school holidays.

Although I would not necessarily advocate a blanket policy such as turning the school servers off at certain times in order to prevent emails from being sent and received (such as happens at the car manufacturer Volkswagen) – because this can cause more stress for people who like to keep on top of their emails – consideration must be given to how often emails are sent, how long those emails are, and what response is expected and when.

Whatever approach is taken, it may be wise to audit your school’s current email usage and investigate the unintended consequences of any current communication practices. For example, ask yourself:

  • How many emails are sent to an average teacher each day/week and why?
  • Could another method of communication be used instead, such as a one-to-one chat or a staff briefing?
  • Could one email be sent each week containing a list of items rather than lots of separate emails being sent throughout the week?
  • Could the email, if it is essential, make it clear that either no response is required, or that a response is not urgent?

Email is just one example. Schools communicate through many other means, too. As such, you may wish to consider the use of memos or briefing papers, meeting agenda and minutes, reports to parents, parents’ evenings and other after-school events, phone calls, and so on. In each case, try to assess the impact of the communication versus the amount of a teacher’s time it takes to send or respond and ask yourself: is it really worth it – what would be the adverse effect if we simply stopped doing this? Would anyone even notice?

Of course, you could easily argue that every communication you send or receive has a positive impact on pupil progress, but you should always think of the opportunity cost. Sometimes we have to bravely stop doing some good things in order to focus on fewer, better things, or simply to help improve our staff’s work/life balance.

2, Scheduling

As well as improving leadership practices, headteachers may wish to consider the impact their scheduling decisions have on a teacher’s workload.

School calendar

How might the school calendar add to a busy teacher’s burden? Is there an avoidable congestion of parents’ evenings and other late-night events such as open evenings, drama productions, and so on? Are meetings and CPD events similarly congested, or do they all fall on the same night of the week which may cause difficulty for some staff?

Often, calendar congestion is the result of unintended consequences. This can be solved – to some extent – by either consulting on the calendar before it is finalised, by forming a working party of staff from a wide variety of job-roles and year groups to co-produce the calendar, or by simply talking to teachers and other staff.

When I was a headteacher I followed a simple maxim: before I took any decision, I asked myself – what will this feel like for a teacher with 23 contact hours a week, playground duties and extra-curricular clubs?

Assessment schedule

You might also wish to think about the collection of data and the writing of reports. Is there a bottleneck at certain points of the year? More importantly, are the processes and systems used for data collection and reporting onerous and convoluted? Or do teachers lack the training to be able to use these systems quickly and fluently?

3, Marking and data

Any discussion about improving assessment methods should, I believe, focus on three things: purpose, process and validity.

Purpose

As a handy rule of thumb, whenever you ask teachers to engage in any form of assessment, you should ask yourself: Why? What is it point of this assessment? How will this assessment – and the data we collect from it – help pupils to make better progress and improve the quality of education at our school?

If an assessment or data collection exercise is solely for management purposes (to produce a report to governors, say; or to generate pretty graphs to impress parents) rather than to actually help pupils make progress, then it should stop.

Of course, I know that it is not always as simple as this. A teacher’s time is finite and sometimes you also need to stop doing things that are indeed in pupils’ best interests rather than for management purposes in order to do other things that are likely to be more impactful on pupils, or to cut a teacher’s workload and make their jobs more manageable.

Process

As well as considering the purpose of assessment, headteachers should think about the process by which teachers are expected to assess, input data, and report the outcomes of assessment.

Here, it is useful to ask yourself whether the process is as efficient as it can be or unnecessarily burdensome.

Consider also: When and how often are teachers expected to assess and input data? Are teachers expected to engineer a test for pupils or can data be gathered in a more holistic, synoptic way? How is the data inputted – directly into software or can teachers supply it in written form? If it requires the use of technology, do all teachers have easy access to it? What will be the outcome of this data collection exercise? What will be done with the data afterwards and by whom?

As well as considering the time implications of data collection, it is wise to consider the extent to which teachers are trained in using the systems – including what you might consider basic spreadsheets as well as commercial software – and the extent to which they have the requisite skills to assess, record and analyse data, as well as act upon that data. Again, think about the opportunity cost, too. How long will it take a teacher to input this data and what else could they be doing with their time that might have a bigger impact on our pupils?

Validity

Finally, headteachers should consider how valid the data they garner from assessments will be. By this, I do not mean how useful the data will be (we covered this under “purpose”), but rather how accurate and useable it will be. In other words, although you may have confidence that the data will be very useful in helping pupils to make better progress (for example, by identifying “at risk” pupils who require additional interventions, and by “stretching” the high-performing pupils), the actual data you mine might not be as accurate as you hope and so all your subsequent actions may be futile or misguided.

To help answer this question of accuracy, you may wish to consider once again whether or not teachers have the requisite skills to be able to assess and provide data. Have you triangulated previous teacher assessments with actual outcomes such as SATs results? Have teacher assessments proven accurate in the past? Were some teachers’ predictions way off-mark and, if so, have you identified any training needs? Have teacher assessments helped to predict eventual outcomes and therefore been useful in terms of identifying those pupils who are at risk of underachievement? Did the subsequent interventions prove effective? Sometimes we keep doing what we have al­ways done because that is easy but, sometimes, we keep doing the wrong things.

You may also wish to consider what is actually being assessed and if indeed that thing is assessable in a meaningful way. What, for example, are you comparing a pupil outcome to? Are those two things indeed comparable? Is it, for example, possible at this stage to assess progress, or might we be measuring a poor proxy for progress?

If assessments are used to measure progress over time, such as on a “flight-path”, is progress in this topic and subject actually linear? Should we be able to see nice neat contrails heading for the skies? Or is progress messier than this because pupils need to go backwards before they can go forwards? Or because different things are being assessed in different topics at different times?

4, Change management

The DfE offers the following advice to help schools reduce the workload caused by change (DfE, 2018b):

  • Plan ahead, identify and eradicate “pinch points”.
  • Time the calendar production in advance of the new school year. Ask a range of staff to review and provide feedback from their perspectives before finalising the calendar.
  • Use assessment and examination calendars to support the school calendar and cross-reference against these. Include assessment points and data collection cycles for the year, and check that data will be collected and processed in time for use. Review these points regularly to ensure that all data drops are necessary and that data is collected when it will be used most efficiently.
  • Share monitoring events, CPD and meeting schedules well in advance.
  • Give regular updates and advance notice of evening and after-school events.
  • Implement changes in a structured and staged manner. Ensure there is adequate time at the planning stage when preparing to make changes and collaborate with staff on plans.
  • Make fewer, more strategic decisions. Decide if other existing practices can be stopped or streamlined.
  • No change for the sake of change. Ensure that changes have a specific focus linked to improvement priorities and have a clear, logical implementation plan.
  • Adopt a one-in, one-out rule for new tasks, encouraging consistency and sustainability.
  • Consider how the governing body can support change management. Consult with governors to agree their involvement. Suggest a workshop to review and streamline workload and support workload reduction across the school(s).
  • Create a shared understanding of the process. Introduce new skills, knowledge and structures with explicit up-front training, structured collaboration and complementary coaching and mentoring.
  • Build leadership capacity by developing teams. Encourage staff to collaborate with other colleagues in school teams and with colleagues from other schools and external agencies to share and distribute workload.
  • Communicate your changes. Work with governors, parents and carers, and pupils to make sure that the school community understands the reasons for change.
  • Ask if you do not understand why a process or practice is carried out. Be clear about how a process or practice is leading to a positive impact on pupils

Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He works as a consultant, speaker, and trainer. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk

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