December 11, 2014

Back in 2010 I wrote a blogpost entitled “The job that never ends” which attempted to calculate how many hours it would take to do every part of a full-time secondary teacher’s job according to the letter. I tried to avoid exaggerating, but I assumed no short-cuts and based it on what my managers told me they wanted to see. So I assumed lessons wouldn’t involve using one textbook for 60 minutes and would actually take time to plan, and that homework would have written feedback. I found that this added up to 60 hours of work a week, not including any time for eating, recovering from stress, extra-curricular activities or work that went beyond the normal legal requirements of the job. This seemed excessive, more than people could cope with for a career that might last several decades, and not something that seemed appropriate for those who needed to be in a suitable state of physical and mental health to make difficult decisions affecting dozens of young people at a time.

If anything, demands seem to have got worse since then. I didn’t include time for preparing for observations. Although complying with excessively rigorous marking policies were a major contributor to the 60 hour total, this was before the days when senior leaders would demand that work be marked in ways that would enable students and teachers to engage in an ongoing written dialogue. It didn’t assume that preparation would include learning new material to be taught as a result of curriculum changes. It didn’t include the, increasingly common, pressure to provide extra lessons after school for key exam groups. I’m now part-time and, as I get very close to 40, I cannot imagine having the energy to even try keeping up with the demands on full-time teachers, in some schools for a term, let alone two decades or more.

These demands take their toll on teachers in terms of stress at work, and as an obstacle to living a healthy and fulfilling life. A recent NUT survey found teachers reporting the following difficulties:

92% Negative impact on quality of my family or my personal life

81% No time for adequate exercise/physical activity

40% Often miss important personal commitments or family activities

59% Causing stress in my relationship

It makes teaching a less attractive career, and the same survey found that 87% of teachers knew a teacher who had left teaching in the last two years because of workload.

It also undermines us as autonomous professionals. If the workload is such that it is unlikely that any normal person can consistently do all the work to the letter, and that any extra task given to a teacher by their managers may prevent them from being able to cope with their job, then teachers have very little protection in the workplace. An unsupportive manager, who increases workload on those they manage, can cause almost any full-time teacher to be unable to do their job, removing any real job security for much of the profession. Moreover, where we have to struggle to complete our work at all, there is often very little opportunity to do it well. Getting the job done becomes the enemy of doing the job well and it is the children who lose out if their teachers are too stressed and overburdened to do their job as well as they’d like.

Workload is now becoming a political issue, with politicians promising to look into the problem. A DfE survey recently gave teachers a chance to describe their situation. However, identifying the problem and doing anything about it are very different. Reducing class sizes or hours spent teaching will cost money, money which politicians have seemed reluctant to pledge. Much of the workload is caused by the need to provide evidence about one’s teaching for the purpose of inspection or performance management. Without more sensible systems of accountability, again something that politicians have shown little interest in, workload will not be reduced. Even if politicians were to provide some of the resources and freedom needed to change the situation, it would still need to be monitored closely to ensure that the gains reach the frontline in the form of a workload reduction.

While I would encourage politicians to act, that cannot be all that we do to confront the problem. We also need to face it as a profession. That means a willingness to avoid overburdening our colleagues, particularly on the part of those with management responsibilities. It also requires a willingness to challenge excessive demands in the workplace, and the best way to do this will always be through effective work on the part of our trade unions in providing a voice for teachers in their places of work, supported by their members.



  1. Recently, Dominic Cummings attended a conference where scientists were complaining that policy makers never listened to them on issues where their expertise was relevant. He told them that generalised whining never works; rather, you have to lay out a road map so that politicians are never in doubt as to what has to be done, and you have to have the expertise to back it up. This is pretty much what we did at the Centre for Policy Studies with our education papers leading up to the last election, and most of what we recommended found its way into the 2010 White Paper and eventually were acted upon. Obviously it helped that Gove was SoS and Cummings was his chief policy Spad, but the advice holds true even now.

    I expect that the current consultation on workload will reflect everything Andrew wrote, but without a coherent plan nothing much will change. We aren’t going to find enough money to expand the workforce, and in any case finding 100,000 good teachers would be impossible. I don’t think any substantial improvement is possible so long as Ofsted has anything to do with teaching and learning. The thinking behind AfL and personalised learning is written into their DNA. Doing anything about this will always be difficult because Ofsted is the principal means by which ministers effect change. I argued the toss with Nick Gibb in respect to synthetic phonics, an issue where we both have form. I told him that the best way to kill a good idea was to entrust it to Ofsted. We all know what has happened; insofar as it has had any impact at all, it has been thanks to sympathetic LA advisers,

    The only plausible alternative to the Ofsted/performance management route to accountability are tests of pupils’ learning. Obviously, we’ve been there with SATs, and it is to be hoped that the new ones coming out in 2016 have nothing to do with the finding of Lord Bew’s Review. In any case, formal tests at 11+ won’t tell anyone where weaknesses are, except in the most general sense. This is a difficult issue but with computer adaptive tests it would be possible to monitor pupil progress frequently and cheaply. I’d be very interested to hear what others think.

  2. For me, the only way forwards is standardisation / automation. There’s never going to be budget for significantly more staff to share the burden. Neither are people going to accept ‘delivering less’ as an acceptable way forwards.

    Outside of education, the answer has invariably been to massively reduce the amount of unnecessary or duplicated effort. I’ve worked with a vast array of organisations from manufacturing to finance to healthcare. In all these organisations, they have transformed themselves by ruthlessly stripping out waste. In many cases they have improved quality at the same time.

    • Does that point to the adoption of (new improved) textbooks, do you think? To reduce duplicated effort and raise standards at the same time? That’s what they have in Finland, along with national testing of a sample of schools to ensure standards are being kept up.

      • Better to produce electronic books that are standardised but licensed for sharing copying and editing content. This means they can be updated by the community, freely distributed and freely linked to other relevant information. If people want paper versions there is no difficulty in printing them and publishing them through free on-line services such as lulu.com or the publishers can do it or just using your own copier for the pdfs if they are free from DRM stuff. If we can waste a billion on curriculum on-line without anyone batting an eyelid, it makes no sense at all not to produce standard free electronic text books that cover the basic statutory curriculum, probably missing a year of OFSTED inspections would pay for it. The publishers might well squeal but the point is to support learning in schools not artificially subsidise a support industry.

      • Textbooks might be a start but I think it should go much further than that – schemes, resources, assessments. The barrier is designing something that also allows flexibility so that teachers can adapt it. Publishers naturally tend to create whole solutions that are a bit prescriptive. I don’t think that would be a good way to go.

        • Got to start somewhere. The licensing of the content is key. We know if content is liberally licensed there is at least some chance that it will get re-used creatively. That is the whole Web 2.0 paradigm. Content could be simply put into the public domain. That would maximise the opportunity for re-use. CCSA would be viral in that any modifications have to be under the same license. Publishers are free to do whatever publishers want to do within the licensing conditions. Real question is how to seed such a thing? Wikipedia shows it’s possible but probably that is because it is on a global scale and not confined to individual national thinking. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that teachers’ workload is exacerbated by a lot of reinvention of the wheel when sharing enabled by digital technologies has the potential to vastly reduce that even if the teachers did the work required collectively themselves.

          • Realistically, the Wikipedia model does not have a great deal of relevance. I would say that Wikipedia is unique in having achieved the critical mass and consensus required to delivery quality purely through volunteering. Furthermore, the content model for Wikipedia is relatively simple it’s a digital analogue of an encyclopaedia.

            What is more likely to succeed for teaching resources / learning media is an online marketplace – think app store – where publishers can share content and teachers can easily pull on it. This content needs to conform to interoperability standards so that there is minimal effort required to use it within a lesson.

            • Old thinking Nic, look at the thousands of open source projects that are community based, most of the internet depends on them. Wikipedia is not at all unique, just more visible than most. Try the Gutenberg project for smaller scale. Openstreetmap, openclipart etc. The main reason people think in terms of publishers doing stuff for them is the same dependency culture that is endemic to large role cultures. NAACE/TLM baseline test is another example of what community can do on a smaller scale in schools. 55,000 pupils, 660 schools voluntarily coming together to share resources to solve post levels KS3 assessment and progress measures. Took less than 6 months from posting the idea in a CAS forum. That has not needed any large corporate and is free to those participating. Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are probably right.

        • I’ve been reading a lot of blogs about Finland lately. Ninety five percent of their classes involve textbook use, but the teachers there talk about how they use the textbook flexibly. Apparently the textbooks are produced relatively locally, rather than nationwide, although they all follow the national curriculum. Teachers are quoted as saying they like textbooks (which include exercises) because it saves them time finding and devising resources, time that they can use to better plan and to support the children who need help.

  3. Are the hours spent teaching or duplication really the issue …. I would put the majority of workload pressures down to teachers being asked to jump through superficial hoops where SLT’s sweep in a new fad just because somebody loosely linked to OFSTED mentioned it. My staff are being asked to do an increasing amount of “fluff” that takes them away from the jobs they actually want to do which is teach

    • Although not the only issue, duplication is significant type of waste. It’s significant for several reasons. The most obvious is that thousands of teachers are planning and resourcing lessons that are largely similar. It leads to other sorts of waste including
      – an increased chance that sub-standard resources are used (so the lesson is not successful).
      – quite often effort is wasted as planning has to be altered to fit what actually happens

      As for faddy things, there are 2 problems. The first is whether they constitute any kind of improvement over existing practice. The second is whether this improvement is a good return on the effort invested. In some ways, fads are a duplication issue insofar as the thing they aim to achieve was often already being achieved.

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. I suspect Tom is picking up a fair point that Dominic Cummings made. It’s not a road map for reducing workload – more a sketch in the sand – but it goes something like: establish a body with a remit to protect education from curriculum and assessment change beyond minor tweaks unless strongly supported by a wide range of stake holders including teachers, universities, employers; work towards further reduction in the number of specifications for each qualification (I understand why the idea of exclusive contracts for a single spec was shelved but in science several boards offer two); suspend Ofsted inspections for all but serious concerns about performance for say five years and engage in a serious study of what happens to standards before deciding whether to reintroduce regular inspection and in what form; at the same time, update the old Baker days requirements to ensure that teachers are able to take control of their own CPD if they want to (and can make a decent fist of their proposal). All of this would allow teachers to concentrate on getting better at teaching rather than re-inventing the wheel all the time and focusing what little capacity is left on undifferentiated CPD and Ofsted second-guessing. Finally, maybe it’s a red herring but I do think some academy chains are at the leading edge of unreasonable workloads e.g. Harris, so maybe there should be a halt on all chain expansion beyond groups of schools agreeing collaboration amongst themselves

  6. This one has always fascinated me for a number of reasons. Of all the numerous conferences and other professional events I ever attended as a full time teacher, easily the most valuable was a course on “Stress and Time Management” an enlightened head I worked for commissioned from two experts, from different industries. They spent a few days inside the school where I worked, watching what people actually did, and designed a two day course around what they saw.

    It was hugely helpful to discover, not only did many professionals face similar, if not more difficult time constraints and stress issues to me, but that they had actually come up with solutions.

    The insularity of the profession is one of its most ouroboric features because it condemns new teachers to adopt poor time management practices and it nurtures career progression, not through teaching excellence, but through bureaucracy.

    I once delivered an inset session on time management to staff at a school where I taught on the first day of the autumn term, by going through every piece of paper that had been placed in my pigeonhole during the summer vacation. I needed to see around 3%. The rest was… garbage. Pre PCs, a quite brilliant deputy head I worked with taught me to go through any paperwork I felt I must read with a highlighter, and to highlight only those actions I genuinely had to take. It’s a hugely enjoyable and liberating exercise I can heartily recommend.

  7. A lot of interesting suggestions here–but I wonder if Tim Oates isn’t on to something in recommending old-fashioned text books with in-built assessments. They can provide a stable core curriculum, while at the same time liberating teachers’ time to enhance lessons as they see fit. The cost of printing and binding them could be seen as a protection against top-down meddling, a hitherto irresistable temptation for policy-makers and educators who view our schools as their very own adventure playgrounds. I don’t think a month goes by without some suggestion for adding more ‘skills’ to the curriculum.

    HMIs have been around since 1837 and I suspect that most teachers have trouble conceiving of what schools would be like without them. If you think about it, almost every workload issue you can think of can be traced back to Ofsted. For a start, think how wonderful it would be if SLTs could help share the teaching load rather than trying to anticipate the next inspection!

    In his forward to Robert Peal’s ‘Progressively Worse’, David Green went so far as to recommend that Ofsted be disbanded. I would go along with this, but it isn’t going to happen. I like dodiscimus’s suggestion of abandoning inspections for 5 years and seeing what effect it has on standards. The only tricky part here is assessment: we still have very little in the way of objective measures of pupil progress. But by almost any reckoning, I would be very surprised if there were not a surge in morale, teacher recruitment and pupils’ academic achievement; I cannot imagine that it would then be politically possible to re-instate routine inspections.

  8. Another excellent post. Thank you.

  9. […] Read his blog, Workload. […]

  10. I think simply not requiring subject teachers to teach one of every year level would help tremendously. All the prep required for 7 different year levels 3 or 4 times a week with nary a chance to reuse a lesson in the same schoolyear is a lot of work. Teaching 1 year group at each Key stage keeps you balanced.

    • Going back to my own schooldays (over half a century ago), I recall that you could determine a teacher’s length of service by how grubby their notes were. And I don’t think our lessons were the worse for it.

  11. I admit that it is a result of my experience growing up in the US. Most teachers teach only one grade level subject beginning in middle school. In smaller districts there is more sharing of grade levels and classes, but not to the same extent as in the UK. Also, guaranteed one free period a day for planning, which is also helpful for managing work load. (Though there is more pressure to run after school groups, or coach a sport).

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