Workload issues have been there throughout my working career in teaching, from 1971, and, from tales told at that time, was ever thus. My earlier thoughts were captured in this blog.
It has always struck me that workload becomes an issue when the status quo is shifted, by an initiative that can be presented by any layer of responsibility, but when it’s from Government, it is then interpreted by leaders at LA or Academy level, before dissemination and further adaptation within each school. At this point, teachers, who are “delivering” what has been required, are then expected to get their heads around the new approach, continue with the old before implementing the new, the implication being that up until then they had been doing something inefficiently.
Having been party to every incarnation of the National Curriculum, from 1987, the 2014 approach was, by far the most radical, requiring significant alteration to approaches, while also embedding changes in wider approaches, such as SEND legislation, GCSE and A level exam systems. It is not surprising that teachers are complaining about workload, especially if systems are in constant flux. Education requires a significant level of consistency, so that everyone knows what they are doing.
One area that will never be removed from a teacher workload is thinking about learning. In many ways, the key issue with teaching is that it can be very hard to switch off, and, with teachers being their own personal critics, sometimes the thinking needs to be identified by others, in order for the teacher to talk through their concerns. There will be variability of need from early career novices through to experienced colleagues taking on extended responsibilities. That experienced colleagues need to support, guide and mentor younger teachers is to the common good. If a novice quickly becomes effective, it reduces the team demand.
After one Ofsted, I sat with my staff and talked in detail about workload, in order to strip out unnecessary duplication and to refine the need to write things down, particularly in the short term, where reflective and responsive teaching was particularly needed. It took a little while to come to overall, effective decisions, but, in the end, it had an impact on every element of the teachers’ lives, and built in a form of PPA time well before it was a requirement.
I can’t help being someone who prefers order and organisation and overall planning. It has always seemed to me that good overview plans allow for appropriate or necessary diversions along the way, which are in response to evident needs. Running an effective school requires an organisation that is well known and a common thread for every teacher, but, I am a firm believer in seeking to release the talents of each individual teacher for the benefit of the whole team.
We drew up a holistic framework that sought to describe the detail of what the school was about in terms of organising for learning. This was an overview that could be easily understood by a wide range of people. As a Head, it was important, for me, to know that we had approaches that ensured that what we had to cover was actually planned to be covered, in the available time.
Two diagrams articulate the general thrust of thinking, at different points.
Every subject area had developed a range of support materials that we called topic specifications. Some people are today calling them knowledge organisers. They were designed as start points for thinking, especially to support non-specialists and to ensure that every child received a broad, balanced, relevant and engaging curriculum. Each articulated the available school resources and suggested challenges that were appropriate to the appropriate year groups. They were revisited every two years with County inspector support, so that they were up to date and each subject manager had personal CPD from their subject lead.
We organised what we called an annual plan, for each year group, to be worked on during a July closure day, in preparation for the coming September. This meant that 1) teachers knew what they were going to do in the first few weeks and 2) I knew what was intended across each year in July. It also saved teachers some valuable holiday time.
I asked for two layers of planning, the annual plan and the term overview. This was to support supply cover, should it be necessary.
Short term plans were seen as aides memoire for the teachers. We provided hard back, A4, note books, within which teachers would keep whatever notes that they needed, available to need if queries were raised about teaching, but the format was not prescribed, so that teachers could note whatever they didn’t want to forget!
However, we did create a format that could be used by student teachers within the school, which was available to any staff who wished to record their lessons formally, or, on one occasion, where significant questions were raised about capability.
Many teachers created a form of medium term, weekly or fortnightly planning, to emphasise the dynamics of learning.
The specific needs of individual children, in writing, were articulated on flip sheets. These were available to children and any adults engaging with their learning support. So, if, for example, a child needed to select adjectives or adverbs more carefully, this would become a topic for discussion when engaging with the developing outcomes. The flip sheets also became de facto records of challenge and achievement across the year, summarised in reports/data. They certainly focused teachers' minds on their marking, which became much clearer.
Recording evidence, as we did, also provided evidence for the specific needs of individual children, especially where they were greater than that of their peers. The following crib sheet was not in use, as it was developed in line with 2014 legislation, but the framework certainly was evident in practice, supported by a very active SENCo.
Engagement with parents had a number of elements. A September “meet the teacher” evening allowed teachers to share the year outline and talk about reading and other homework likely to appear. Teachers prepared a half year bullet-point report, that effectively became an agenda for a short discussion, with parents able to add an item if they wished. At the year end, the teachers wrote a personal report, appended to a child overview report of their year, with specific achievements and continuing needs. Teachers saw parents on request, after this report. Staff meetings were not planned for this period, to accommodate need.
My advice to any school wishing to tackle workload is to step back and look at every aspect of demand that can impact excessively on teacher time. Time spent on “busy work” is not necessarily productive and can impede the dynamics of learning or distract the teacher from thinking about their teaching in sufficient depth, so children’s progress in limited.
Where early career teachers are employed, there is a need for experienced colleagues to mentor and coach them into good habits, which is easier if the school has clearly articulated processes. There is also a need to provide personal development time, with a clear framework, so that wider reading and observation of, and talking with, colleagues adds to personal skills and knowledge.
Teachers work at multiple layers of need. A swirling mind, trying always to make sense of what is being asked eventually results in diminished outcomes. Creating time to think is an essential good; everyone benefits, especially the children and teachers can actually enjoy their teaching.