OFSTED and Workload

March 31, 2018

In a recent blogpost I made the following comments about how OFSTED could change:

Don’t add to workload. There’s a lot of debate about how inspections could prevent teachers having too much workload. If there is a practical way to do that I would be interested to know what it is, but ultimately it’s not OFSTED’s job to set teachers’ working conditions. However there are still two ways in which inspection is adding to teacher workload. Firstly, inspectors look for consistency, i.e. whether a school’s policy is being followed by everyone. This means that where schools have counter-productive, workload-increasing policies, OFSTED is creating an incentive for schools to police those policies aggressively even where the policies are terrible. OFSTED can’t be the final arbiter on which policies create too much workload, but an acceptance that will be looking for consistency only where consistency will not increase workload (with a few examples of what that means) would help matters. Secondly, while OFSTED is clear that they do not require lesson plans or folders of student information when they observe a class, inspectors still take them if offered and schools still encourage teacher to provide such things for inspectors. OFSTED should not just say “we do not require X” when mythbusting, they should say “we will not even look at X” and start with Xs that a classroom teacher might be told to hand over unnecessarily.

There were a few responses that did not like the idea of inspectors refusing to look at information that might be relevant to judgements, so I thought I’d clarify and extend what I’m arguing for.

For clarity, this was entirely about classroom teachers. I am in no position to comment on whether managers have to provide too much information or not. But what has concerned me in recent years is that classroom teachers are being instructed to collect and present information that is entirely for observers and has no benefit for them or their students. I don’t blame the schools for this, as long as inspectors are willing to consider information in folders thrust under their noses then schools have every incentive to collect mitigating evidence to explain anything inspectors see in any given classroom. But this clearly does add to teacher workload. Those who say “but what if showing this to an inspector causes them to make a better or more sympathetic judgement?” have missed the point. Either we think reducing teacher workload is a priority, or we don’t. I think it should be and if that means inspectors avoid making the kind of judgements that could be swayed by a folder, then so be it. We need to move away from a culture of trying to prove everything to OFSTED and we need OFSTED to help with that by refusing to reward behaviours that might make their job easier, but make the work of teachers harder.

As an additional point, there may be a huge gap between what information schools think inspectors want to see, and what they actually want to see. There was a lot of excitement on Twitter last week when Sean Harford, OFSTED’s education director, made the following comment (admittedly in the context of EYFS):

The other point I made about OFSTED looking for consistency is particularly relevant for marking. I seem to have ended up in countless meetings and conversations about marking policies in recent years. At no point has anybody ever asked the most obvious question:

What marking policy would lead to more learning?

Instead, the discussions have focused on the following three questions:

  1. How can we demonstrate students acting on feedback?
  2. How can we ensure that everyone is doing this in the same way?
  3. (Not in every school) How can we do this in a way that requires least workload?

As a result I have seen ever more ingenious ways of trying to do the wrong thing with the least effort. The priority is, “put something in their books they can easily respond to and be seen to respond to”, which has become the entire point of marking.

However, this is not point of marking. The point of marking is to find out what students are doing. In some classes and some topics, this is about feedback. With other classes this is about behaviour, and in particular monitoring effort. With other classes and other topics it’s about assessing the effectiveness of your teaching. Even where feedback is to be given, the best type of feedback will vary. Often the best feedback is to re-teach something to the whole class. Sometimes the best feedback is merely to point out mistakes to individuals. Sometimes it needs a more detailed explanation to an individual, and whether that is best done in writing, or verbally will depend on the child.

My experience is that the best way to mark often depends on the individual student, and always on the specific class. Policies that try to make marking “consistent” for every piece of work a teacher marks are utterly counter-productive. They just slow down and obstruct marking. They become more counter-productive when the policies are imposed on whole departments. They reach the absolute highest level of obstruction to teachers when they are imposed on whole schools. And this is being done without the slightest regard for learning. It is always done for the sake of inspectors, and other people scrutinising books. Teachers are left with the horrible choice: do I do the marking that is best for my class, or the marking that people looking in my books want to see? Often this means doing two types of marking, the useful stuff and the compulsory stuff, or feeling guilty when you skip the former, or stressed when you skip the latter. And this is the fault of an inspection system, where complete strangers are looking for “feedback” and looking for “consistency”. It is reasonable for inspectors to check that teachers look at work. It is reasonable for inspectors to check that students are doing work. That’s it. Everything else is just a hoop that teachers have to jump through. And if you want absolute proof that school marking policies are not for kids but for observers, ask a few teachers if they have ever provided written feedback to a child who cannot read.





  1. I think you’re convincing me more now Andrew. My initial response was to think “Yes, reducing teacher workload is A priority, but has it become THE priority in education above all other? If that is the case then we should just stick some videos on!” In other words I guess it comes down to how much of a priority accountability is in education when compared to teacher workload. (I know you have said to me before that you can only have one priority…)

    Your advice though cuts beyond just ‘the’ priority of teacher workload, and settles firmly in the priority of doing what is most effective for the pupils, and so I guess the process here needs to start from the other end again:
    1) Being absolutely clear what accountability our schools should have to the taxpayer.
    2) Being absolutely clear what would be the most reliable but non-intrusive framework for implementing this accountability
    3) Being absolutely clear what would be the most reliable but non-intrusive way of measuring the quality of teaching.

    Of course it’s not essential to measure the quality of teaching if outcomes can beautifully encapsulate the full benefit which children get from their schooling, but that’s clearly not straightforward. Ultimately then, do we need teaching looked-at for accountability to the taxpayer, and if so, how do we most reliably but non-intrusively do that?

  2. Do British schools not have systematic staff surveys which include questions about workload?
    I work in Victoria, Australia and each year all staff in all government schools complete the same staff survey. It contains questions about workload and discipline, assessment, leadership support and many other variables. As an Assistant Principal I can see how our staff rate their workload compared to every school in the state. No need for Ofsted.

  3. Love this post. To be honest it pretty much sums up my whole experience of UK education. Teachers are very stretched in what they “should” be doing.

    I am now working in Qatar and have seen a different style of education using the IB curriculum (international schools).

    Seeing both styles has shown a different emphasis and there is more focus on improving the students personal skills.

    However, from my point of view at the end of the day students (and teachers) are judged on how well students do in exams. Until there is a fundamental shift in education to stop the emphasis on teaching to a test, nothing will really change.

    I’d love to see students assessed on how good their personal skills are, which would obviously be challenging to standardise. My argument is why do we need standardisation anymore.

    Parents, teachers, employers can literally see work and portfolios through online CVs and specific examples. Interviews can be made more specific for universities and jobs and a ‘trial’ period is easy enough to give the best candidates.

    A shift in this will (in my eyes) bring about a focus on students learning and empower more students to decide the route their education takes (whilst freeing up teachers time to FACILITATE their learning in whatever ways they seem fit). It will have to increase creativity in students and teachers work, possibly the most restricted part of education currently.

  4. […] written a couple of posts recently about OFSTED ( What OFSTED still needs to do and OFSTED and Workload) which brought up the issue of workload. I identified two problems in particular that relate to […]

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