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Leadership, OFSTED

Challenging Workloads and the Workload Challenge

I’ve stood up and spoken at a number of conferences over the past few years and often used this as one of my lines, “I don’t want to be negative but I need to be honest with you.  You’re all working too hard.”

Photo Credit: Richard Ella via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Richard Ella via Flickr cc

Schools have become places where young people go to watch old people work.  This isn’t a random statement it usually precedes me either talking about initiative overload to school leaders or greater expectations of students in the classroom.

It would be easy to be cynical about the Workload Challenge and its timing, just before a General Election.  In fact it would be very easy to be cynical.  However, cynicism serves little purpose and is possibly not the most professional response.  Work comes in different shapes and sizes.  Work that interests me and gives me joy never seems to be burdensome.  Look at the time teachers give up to attend TeachMeets, engage on twitter or blog and go over and above what is required of them in their contracts.  Compare with this the burden of the work created by others through pernicious accountability and rushed or idiosyncratic change.  Even a small amount of this type of work creates a load which feels heavy, uncomfortable and unnecessary.

The consultation is framed around three simple questions:

  • Tell us about the unnecessary and unproductive tasks which take up too much of your time. Where do these come from?
  • Send us your solutions and strategies for tackling workload – what works well in your school?
  • What do you think should be done to tackle unnecessary workload – by government, by schools or by others?

The Department for Education website already has a number of suggestions to reduce workload as outlined below.  Please note the same link takes you to the page where you can fill in the consultation.

  • More planning, preparation and assessment time
  • Reducing data collection requirements
  • Clear guidance about what evidence is expected during Ofsted inspections
  • Realistic expectations for marking pupils’ work
  • Improving IT systems and programs to make them more user-friendly and efficient
  • Trusting staff to plan lessons effectively (unless there is evidence of an issue with planning)
  • Short, effective meetings and fewer of them

There is nothing wrong with the list above and many of the suggestions seem eminently sensible.  By way of example, PPA time could easily be radically increased – double class size and you can half a teacher’s actual contact time liberating hours for planning, preparation and assessment.  I don’t think this is what the respondents meant.  Let’s be careful what we ask for, I also don’t think there is any extra government money on the table.

The suggestions above look at some of the symptoms of our stressed education system.  We need to look deeper to identify the root causes.  Deal with the root causes and not only are the symptoms alleviated but the long term health of the system is secured.

Accountability Drives Workload

Photo Credit: Big Al via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Big Al via Flickr cc

In the same way assessment drives the curriculum and teachers are required to teach to a test, accountability drives workload and leaders dance to its tune.  If you have a great test or intelligent accountability then it works well.  However, the leadership dance becomes increasingly frenetic where the accountability system is high stakes.

The problem with the current accountability system is it lacks intelligence.  It’s questionable to what extent it is a valid and reliable measure of the quality of the schooling rather than the ability or disadvantage of the intake.  Schools working with hard pressed families or constrained city dwellers are particularly vulnerable to poor Ofsted gradings and the subsequent vilification.  We should actually be supporting them.

The Coastal Question: Ofsted and the New Frontiers in Education Research takes a very nuanced approach to disadvantage looking at Output Area Classifications (OAC) and making a link to Ofsted gradings of schools.

“Cosmopolitan areas of central London and Hard-Pressed areas of coastal cities may share very similar levels of deprivation, but they have different Census characteristics. While the former are defined by high proportions of full-time students and people working in information and communication, the latter are defined by lower levels of qualifications and lower proportions of non-White residents. OAC distinguishes between these places in a way that regional and deprivation-based approaches do not.”

The Coastal Question: Ofsted and the New Frontiers in Education Research

Look at the following statistics for inspections from January to July 2014:

Acknowledgement: Data from ASCL Regional Conference, North West 12th November 2014 Re-order to show percentage of God of Better Overall Effectiveness Grades by Region

Acknowledgement: Data from ASCL Regional Conference, North West 12th November 2014
Re-order to show percentage of God of Better Overall Effectiveness Grades by Region

The conclusion is either the leaders up North are all idiots and the teachers useless compared to London and the South or there are systematic failures in Ofsted’s current approach.  The North/South divide seems to be growing wider.  The Midlands, as you would expect, are in the middle.

The latest “clarifications”, available on the Ofsted website are not clarifications at all rather quite significant changes to practice.  Despite this they are welcome to the extent that they actual appear in inspection teams’ practise.  Clear guidelines are one thing, consistent practice is another.

You can already identify root causes of excessive workload from some of Ofsted’s latest changes.  Inspectors claiming, “You can tell so much from looking at a student’s exercise book.”  Exercise books are about to become the new lesson grading phenomenon with progress expected every two pages.  What we should be hearing is, “You can only tell so much from looking at a student’s exercise book.”  It’s difficult to see realistic expectations for marking pupils’ work” any time soon in a school looking down the barrel of an Ofsted inspection or coming out of one without at least a good.  That’s about 62% of schools in the North West and looking worse if you work in a coastal town.  Context is everything and I’m not convinced that the clarifications or latest handbook go far enough.


Photo Credit: Thomas Timm via Flickr cc

My suggestion is for a peer accountability system that is validated, in the early years, by the best HMIs.  Greater account taken of a school’s impact, where it has a disproportionately high number of hard pressed families or children of lower prior attainment, in the accountability system.  A move to inspecting trusts, federations and local authorities’ fitness to run schools rather than inspecting individual schools.  These changes would leave schools to focus on improving education for children rather than satisfying Ofsted or the perverse behaviours it produces from some senior leaders.

 Rushed & Idiosyncratic Change

Rushed change by central government is a great creator of workload and angst in the profession.  I’m all for effective meetings but the chance of shorter meetings and fewer of them is unlikely any time soon in schools.  The number and manner of introduction of curriculum and examination changes over the next few years is overwhelming.  Changes at all key stages to the national curriculum and examination syllabi will keep teachers discussing things in many a meeting as well as working long hours to implement the changes.  Allied to this is the sequencing of change.  In core subjects at Key Stage 3, teachers will be required to rethink the curriculum for the next three years whilst cohorts of Year 6 children enter secondary schools having been taught a different national curriculum from the year before.

Change for politicians in England needs to happen quickly.  Sadly this can be at the expense of a coherent educational experience for children and increased workload for teachers.  The introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland occurred over a decade.  This seems unthinkable in England.

Idiosyncratic changes are also a problem as they tend to come and go with alarming regularity as the Secretary of State changes: introduce the E-Bacc, get rid of AS-levels and call anyone who disagrees an enemy of promise or the blob adds to angst and adds to workload.

There is a need for politicians and civil servants to sit down with the profession and look at all the current and forthcoming initiatives that need to be implemented.  It’s not too late to rethink some and re-timetable others.  A more measure approach to change and better change management are key ways to reduce teachers’ workload.

Don’t Blame School Leaders

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

The story goes that a young man set out to change the World for the better.  After many years of failure he decided to focus on changing a village.  He had little success and decided he would go home and concentrate on changing his family.  He had no joy with this either.  As the years past and his wisdom grew he realised that he should have started by changing himself first.

My advice, for what it’s worth and if anyone is listening, is that the Department for Education and Ofsted should seek to change themselves first and remove the additional workload they create unnecessarily for teachers.  My experience is where the Department for Education and Ofsted go headteachers and senior leaders invariably follow.



12 thoughts on “Challenging Workloads and the Workload Challenge

  1. “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

    Of course you can, it’s called leadership. The SLT are paid to have the planks in their eyes, but many simply saw the plank into pieces and pass the pieces on. Many teachers have the speck in their eye because it has been put there by SMT.

    I like the phrase “a stitch in time saves nine”. If SMT didn’t blow the sawdust all over the place in the first instance, there would be no need to remove it from the eyes of others.

    Part of the job of SMT should be ensuring adequate resources for the task. Of course some people do work inefficiently but in my experience this is not the norm. No-one can manage their time when they have unreasonable demands made upon them and once demands become unreasonable we have a downward spiral.

    Accountability does not drive workload, accountability drives SMT as you suggest above. SMT then drive workload.

    How often do pull a kid up for a misdemeanour only to have them say….”he talked to me” or “he made me do it” and expect the blame for their behaviour to miraculously shift.

    “Don’t blame school leaders” seems to me to be simply school leaders saying “he made me do it”.

    Just as kids have to take responsibility, so do school leaders. I am not suggesting that all school leaders cause this problem, but a good many do in my experience.

    The answer to workload is not to double class sizes, it is to double the number of teachers. If finance is limited then you get what you pay for. Expecting “private school performance” with public sector resources with public sector pupils is not reasonable. More SMT should stand up and say no. More teachers should stand up and say no. Let the teach first cash be spent on more classroom teachers. Let the money wasted on academies and free schools be spent on more teachers. Let the money spent on inflated numbers of SMT who are employed to put the dust into the eyes of teachers to enforce an unreasonable workload be spent on teachers. It really isn’t rocket science.

    Posted by bt0558 | November 18, 2014, 3:51 pm
    • … and a different perspective.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | November 22, 2014, 1:02 pm
    • Sorry for the delay in responding but I wanted to think through the comments. Some of what you say is a really good challenge though I’m not so sure the comments about finance or the general SLT bashing are that helpful. The accountability system is complex and Ofsted are at the top of the web of connections. Changing workload and the demands on schools won’t fundamentally change until this is rethought.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | November 27, 2014, 4:09 pm
  2. Thanks for writing this; it offers a perceptive, insightful and thought provoking perspective. I often argue that “school leadership” is an oxymoron, and I argue this precisely for the reasons you offer here. Who was it who said that we have stopped watching the ball and have become obsessed with the referee?

    The recent announcements from Ofsted are encouraging, but I think there is reluctance to believe them. A colleague of mine shared an anecdote that friends of his in a primary school had recently been inspected. The inspectors did not personally grade lessons, but instead expected members of SLT, whom were also observing the lessons, to give a grade and to share this with the teacher. Now, I strongly suspect the “truth” of the situation has probably been lost in the telling of the story, like Chinese whispers. I can imagine that the inspectors wanted to watch how SLT in that school worked, and if SLT generally grade lessons then this is what the inspectors saw. But this kind story adds fuel to the fire of disbelief.

    We need to see Ofsted practising the new framework, and we need to see it reflected in their reports. We need to see the DfE taking action in workload. We need to see clear guidance to school leaders and we need to see school leaders being given permission to actually lead.

    If you want to lead the people, you must learn to follow the people. If you wish to be above the people, you must place yourself beneath the people. These ideas are found in the Tao te Ching which also offers the greatest advice on leadership that I have ever seen: Ruling a country is like frying a fish; you spoil it with too much poking.

    Posted by @sputniksteve | November 23, 2014, 9:58 am


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