Our approach to reducing (let’s call it re-focusing) workload

Andy Byers

I spent 3 years as a chartered accountant (what was I thinking?) before becoming a teacher of Economics in Blyth, Northumberland and then a Head of Department and Assistant Head. I was Deputy Head, then Head of School at Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham, Northumberland, for 14 years before becoming Headteacher of Framwellgate School Durham in 2017. I tweet as @framheadteacher and this year decided to post a blog a week on www.framheadteacher.com covering everything from complaining parents to the curriculum, workload, funding, and knives.

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It is curious that with all the talk about teacher workload and the recruitment & retention crisis, taking place at the same time is a new phenomenon; the grassroots CPD movement. In towns and cities across the country, teachers are giving up their Saturdays to attend Teachmeets, ResearchEd, and BrewEd events. This is heartening because it confirms that it isn’t hard work that teachers are complaining about, but unnecessary work.

In some respects, the system is failing if we want our teachers to engage in meaningful CPD but expect they do it in their own time. At least school leaders are now starting to engage in the workload debate, not simply because it is ethically wrong to expect employees to work 60 hour weeks, but because if we strip out those tasks which have no impact on learning, we free up space for teachers to feel energised about their job, and put more back. And as we can see, putting more back might mean attending voluntary CPD or planning better lessons.

It took me a while to see this. As a Deputy Head and, subsequently, Head of School for 14 years, I don’t think I did enough to tackle workload. Taking up my current Headship, perhaps with more confidence, and in a new setting, allowed me to look at what was important. The school I joined wasn’t in a great place, so I was less concerned about the hours people were working than wanting them to be working on the right things. Everyone thought they were working hard, but it wasn’t having the positive impact they thought it should have. We needed to do things differently.

If you want teachers to plan a better curriculum, teach better lessons, do meaningful assessment, and implement better systems, you have to be able to answer the question, “so what do you want me to stop doing?”. In our case, our approach to reducing (let’s call it re-focusing) workload, has taken 18 months and is still ongoing, but we are getting there.

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The most visible strategy was the easiest to introduce. “Please don’t send emails at the weekend”. Who doesn’t want to embrace a directive like that? I don’t think it is enough to say, as many schools do, that you aren’t expected to read emails if they are sent out of hours. If your email box starts to accumulate emails, it is stressful to ignore them, so you are tempted to respond, if only to reduce your workload on Monday mornings.

We don’t have written reports because they don’t help students to learn better. We have reduced the number of data collection points from 6 times per year to 3 (and have stopped reporting meaningless grades). We have introduced better recording systems (CPOMs for example) to remove complicated paper trails. Introducing a centralised behaviour management system so teachers never do detentions, frees them up to plan, run extra-curricular activities or support students. Senior and middle leaders do all of the detentions. Improving student behaviour not only improves learning; it also improves the mental wellbeing of teachers.

And now we turn our attention to marking. A couple of months ago, I distributed a Survey Monkey on workload to ask our teachers how they thought our reforms were going. Most were positive, but the number one concern remained marking. 20 years ago, when I taught a full timetable of 22 lessons per week (plus cover of course), the part of the job I hated above all others, was marking. I would spend hours on it only for it to be ignored (they’d read the grade and move on). Regular feedback is one of the most important parts of teaching, but we get confused between feedback and marking.

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We now have a “feedback not marking” pilot running in school, with 7 teachers trialling a range of effective feedback strategies (live marking; whole-class feedback; better ways to check for understanding). Our intention is that we will use this half-term to write a new “no-marking” policy, ready for September.

Do I worry that reducing workload will be interpreted the wrong way and that the car park will be empty at 3.10pm when students could be taking part in extracurricular activities, or teachers could be planning collaboratively? I’d be lying if I said that didn’t cross my mind. Reducing workload isn’t enough of course. As a Headteacher, the key is still to appoint the best people you can find, trust in their professionalism, ensure that CPD is of the highest quality, and fill some of the void left by removing the pointless activities with meaningful ones. When I look at our best departments, I still see great teaching, fabulous outcomes, and people who care, and I know that they are still working hard. Their cars are definitely in the car park beyond the end of the school day, but at least they aren’t doing pointless work, and can enjoy their weekends without the ping of an email.

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