‘I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy – I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.’ Art Williams
So, teacher workload has once again been thrust into the spotlight. In recent speeches, both David Hinds and Amanda Spielman announced it was to be a key focus on their watch. Round of applause.
Now, wouldn’t it have been gratifying if this had been a genuine admission on the part of the political mandarins that teaching, while it has never been easy, has never been harder; that they shared a genuine concern in the well-being of the most vital asset they have in the interests of our children – the staff.
But no – as they ratchet up the pressure for improved results, forever upwardly mobile graph lines and not just good practice but EVIDENCE of good practice, it appears that their first, real concern is that teachers are not signing up for one of the most rewarding professions there is. Despite their expensive publicity campaigns (and most have been excellent), recruitment targets have been missed for each of the last five years while pupil numbers continue to rise relentlessly. Last year, £835 million was paid to supply agencies to plug staffing gaps, while budgets continue to be stretched.
Their second concern is retention. If encouraging people to sign up is a struggle, then holding on to them seems even more problematic. One quarter of all those who qualified from 2011 onwards have left the profession citing stress, long hours, workload and sleepless nights among the key causes (Education Support Partnership).
And what is their panacaea? A moratorium on Curriculum change, Primary Testing, GCSE and A Level. Now, welcome though this may be (apart from the fact that even Hinds himself has admitted he is unable to prevent GCSE change from rolling out), what comfort is this to teachers in staffrooms? It is pleasing that Hinds and Spielman appear to want to focus less on the symptom (recruitment and retention) and more on the cause (workload/stress) but have they picked the right target to achieve this? Staff tell me it is more basic challenges that grind them down; setting and marking work/homework; providing and recording written feedback; producing lesson plans that sometimes take longer to prepare than teaching the lesson itself; endless recording and reporting of progress data; time spent on non-teaching tasks; endless meetings that have little impact on classroom practice.
The moratorium is a well-intentioned ladder but is it leaning against the right wall? With due respect, while a decision to cease tinkering with the testing regime is laudable and long overdue, it is the day to day drip drip of tiresome tasks that leaves staff crawling towards Friday and that first glass of prosecco. OFSTED Mythbusters is a good start (though evidence is patchy as to whether they mean what they say) so humbly, I offer them a simple action list:
- Have leaders ask staff annually what is the one thing that is stopping them from doing their job effectively and base planning on what staff say.
- Announce each term the one thing the school is going to do to reduce workload.
- Have a cross-staff stress management team
- Whenever an initiative is planned audit it not only on doability, affordability and impact but also on how much time and effort will be required and if it’s worth it.
- Have minimalist lesson plans.
- Avoid the tyranny of perfectionism (this coming from a recovering perfectionist).
- Have ‘What NOT to do lists’.
- Establish a practice that expects no member of staff to do more than two hours planning/marking per day.
- Establish a ‘Buddy System’ where staff monitor each others workload and stress.
- Audit the term for hotspots and pressure points and design contingency strategies.
- Insist that staff go home straight after school on at least one night a week.
- Don’t champion a full car park at 5.00pm.
- Replace, as much as possible, written with verbal feedback.
- Drastically reduce or even phase out homework (See John Hattie ‘Visible Learning’).
- Find a more effective strategy than lesson observation (John Hattie again!).
- If IT can replace a human, let it.
This is by no means exhaustive but at least it’s a start. Teaching is, I believe, among the most rewarding callings there is. It will never be easy but we can certainly make it easier. I believe teachers can do anything but they can’t do everything.