Staff wellbeing: Marking and lesson-planning identified as toxic workload

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools should be aiming for a working week for teachers of no more than 50 hours, with reductions in lesson-planning and marking being made to achieve this.

The suggestion comes from new workload research published this week by the UCL Institute of Education (Jerrims & Sims, 2020).

It highlights 55 hours a week as being a key tipping point that sees teachers’ quality of life declining.

However, the paper says that workplace wellbeing is not linear, and while activities such as lesson-planning and marking can drive poor wellbeing among teachers, workload associated with things like CPD, teaching and collaborating with colleagues has little direct negative effect.

The paper draws upon TALIS 2018 – the Teaching and Learning International Survey – analysing data from 10,000 teachers from five English-speaking jurisdictions, including England and the US.

It cites research showing that a quarter of teachers in England work more than 59 hours per week, while 40 per cent report that they usually work in the evening and around 10 per cent during the weekend.

The paper suggests that “a reduction of five or ten hours among those teachers who currently work 60 or more hours per week might potentially lead to an appreciable increase in this group’s quality of life”.

It states: “There is evidence that, in some countries, the link between working hours and workload stress may be non-linear, with teachers’ quality of life somewhat declining once they work more than 55 hours per week. The time that teachers spend upon certain tasks – most notably marking – is found to be particularly detrimental to their wellbeing, while others (e.g. time spent teaching) have little direct effect.”

The paper continues: “The two aspects of teachers’ jobs that leads to the greatest increase in workload stress are lesson planning and marking; each additional hour spent upon the latter is associated with a 0.06 standard deviation increase in stress in the workplace.

“This is in contrast to other aspects of the job, such as time spent teaching and working with colleagues, professional development, which seem to have little direct effect upon teachers’ quality of working life.

“Together, the evidence points towards a need to aim for a term-time working week for teachers of no more than around 50 hours – similar to the maximum allowed under the European Working Time Directive. This reduction in total working hours should be mainly achieved via reductions in marking and lesson planning.”

When it comes to marking, the authors point out that while this is a challenging area for school leaders, the amount of time spent marking in several English-speaking countries (including by both primary and secondary teachers in England) is above international averages.

The paper adds: “A recent review found a lack of good research on the impact of written marking on pupil learning. However, it found that there was evidence to suggest that acknowledgement marking, awarding grades for every piece of work and marking without providing time for pupils to consider the feedback are all unlikely to help pupils – thus, ‘schools should mark less … but better’.

“Consequently, it is likely that many schools could reduce teacher stress by reducing the amount of marking they require teachers to do, without it having a detrimental effect on pupil learning.”

Commenting on the paper, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: "Teachers are still working among the longest hours in Europe, and this is clearly linked to heavy workload of lesson preparation and marking, resulting in poor wellbeing rates.

“As this report shows, it is not the core work which teachers find stressful but the piling on to the working day of a set of accountability requirements that exist solely to please government and Ofsted and offer little educational value. They do however drive high stress and poor wellbeing levels in teachers.

"Since the data used by the UCL researchers was collected, we have entered a worldwide pandemic in which teachers are working exceptionally hard with no extra time or resources, constantly putting themselves at risk and making changes to practice to provide continuity of education for all.”

  • Jerrim & Sims: Teacher workload and well-being. New international evidence from the OECD TALIS study, UCL Institute of Education, November 2020: https://bit.ly/3fzk9cs


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