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Eliminating workload: are curriculum change, behaviour and tutoring the elephants in the room?

The three reports published in March by the workload review groups make interesting reading. They have been informed by the workload survey, although didn't contain a huge proportion of teachers nor make much reference to research (with the exception of the planning report). The recommendations, to me and the team I work with, are common sense. However, three activities that generate workload were missing and the process has failed to take a holistic approach because, let's face it, all issues are workload issues, indeed each report contains the standard phrase 'there is no single reason behind excessive workload.'

The three areas missing are top down curriculum change, behaviour management and tutoring.  Now, before I start, all of these are essential, but do have major workload implications, especially if we want teachers to focus on the main thing, which is teaching and learning. Every decision made should ensure that teachers are able to collaboratively plan sequences of lessons and talk to each other about teaching and learning.

First, let us consider the stock phrases. Government, leadership and teachers have a responsibility to workload:

Government need to stop changing the accountability mechanisms and curriculum. This causes crazy amounts of work, doesn't allow good practice to be embedded and leaves teachers scrambling to keep up.  Not all subjects and areas are well supported by subject associations and the pace of change is unsustainable.  Although the planning report does make a subtle mention of the Government's role here, it stops far too short in its language in my view. In addition, it fails to take in to account that school budgets are declining in cash terms.

If the government are to take seriously the issues around workload, more money needs to be made available to school in order to reduce the contact time. My school is very creative in freeing up groups of teachers for collaborative planning (focused on schemes of work) but we are struggling and need to increase contact time in order to make the budget balance. Of course, curriculum change needs to happen (and be driven by academics and teachers) but whole scale change has occurred in my short career three time. Indeed, sometimes it seems all that I do is prepare for new changes instead of focusing on supporting good teaching and learning.

Furthermore, the accountability measures are clearly ill thought out. I can only imagine at the pressure felt by primary colleagues at the testing of Year 2 and Year 6. I agree that rigour needs to be increased, but expecting schools to retro-fit reform is like realising the life-support system of a Soyuz rocket hasn't been fitted 15 minutes after launch: bonkers.

Of course, strong schools will still add the spark to learning regardless of the demands, however at the moment school leaders are under immense pressure where it seems that there is no realisation that improvements in education take a long time. There are no quick fixes. It's a cultural thing. It's not simply a case of changing the tyres, great teachers take time to develop. Head Teachers aren't football managers.

Finally, let's consider the preposterous nature of the Government's plans to academise all schools and to effectively replace LA's with, erm LA's AKA schools commissioners and their teams. I have nothing against academies or multi academy trusts, some of them are excellent and some of them are pants. Just like all schools. Just imagine the workload that will be required of governing bodies, school leaders, teachers and support staff to implement the changes only to end up with a similar looking system.

Leadership of schools at all levels are the main drivers of workload.  Not only must we lead by example, we must examine, evaluate and tweak policies by the outcomes (academic or otherwise). I agree with the reports that planning, marking and data collection are not for external audiences. Indeed, if the only reason we do something to to check that it's being done, that is wrong. Much has been written about different ways to do things, and some schools because of their position will need to be tighter, however there is no holy grail.  There isn't one way to do anything in teaching.  As a leadership team we considered what we could do to ensure workload is reduced:

  • Ensure that there are Schemes of Work in all subjects. As a subject leader, the curriculum and scheme of work was the fundamental document. It minimised planning so that teachers could focus on the individual needs of the young people in front of them. This was at lesson level and contained the 'why' as well as the assessment and particular needs of the exam board, wider curriculum or school needs. It allowed teachers to be creative and the resources were supplied. Sequences of lessons are the key and, some lessons will be routine, unimaginative and progress will be slower, what matters is what the student experiences over time.
  • Change the culture around feedback - we have made great strides in this area of minimising the expectation of written comments toward feedback for impact. In other words, if feedback results in better students progress (however that is measured) then happy days. We have a minimal requirement in terms of marking. However, the key success has been where our middle leaders have taken the principles of our feedback policy and shaped them to fit their subject.
  • We also need to change the culture around  using educational published resources. I edit and write such publications and can testify to the amount of work that is put in. Indeed, I've previously argued that textbooks should be every teacher's guilty pleasure. Here the reports miss a trick. Firstly, they don't recognise that some schools do not have a budget to purchase textbooks and other resources (remember that the curriculum keeps changing) and that ITT have a big role to play in the propagation of a culture against textbooks. Finally, subject associations have also been guilty of not championing resources, although some do review and identify resources that are of value.
  • School leaders need to engage with, simplify and disseminate research. Of course, it would be great to give teachers more time, but there's a money thing. 
  • School leaders need to say no. At all levels. 
Teachers have to take responsibility for their workload and be willing to be subversive.

So, about those other things that increase workload:
  • Behaviour management systems can create a workload burden. Yes, time spent on developing behaviour for learning is well invested, but the tracking systems, especially those placed on middle leaders, need to be streamlined. 
  • Tutoring is an important part of a secondary school's ethos and I wouldn't argue for it to go, but it does take a lot of time. In some schools tutors have to deliver PHSE and other programmes as well as monitor attendance and behaviour. Of course, as with many issues in schools, there is a lack of consistency, but sometimes the burden on tutors can be overlooked despite many schools championing the role of the tutor. The role of the tutor in building positive relationships and acting as the point of contact for parents and carers, but we need to examine what they do as well as what is expected of pastoral middle leaders.


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