Teacher Workload – You’ll Need More Than A Bonfire Of Red Tape

Politicians in Crocodile Tears Shock

Something rather strange has happened in the last two weeks. For four years we have been told by politicians that teachers have never had it so good, and that they don’t work hard enough without the encouragement of having their pay cut through spurious performance mechanisms. An accompaniment to this dismal tune has been faithfully played by HMCI Wilshaw, who did a passable solo impersonation of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen when telling us that modern teachers didn’t really know what stress was, while simultaneously condemning any teachers who committed the cardinal crime of working their contracted hours, or taking their marking home rather than hanging around school buildings.

Yet in the last two weeks, this has all faded into the background as each Party in turn has suddenly discovered that (a) teachers work very long hours and (b) not all of these hours are strictly necessary.

Tristram Hunt wrote a lovely Guardian article which oozed concern for teachers’ workload; an effect he only partly spoiled by insisting that, in order to prevent the upheaval which creates so much extra work for teachers, he was planning to continue to impose the Govian GCSE changes which are soon to create such upheaval and extra work for us. He also seemed to suggest that he felt that teachers would rather keep the farcical Performance Related Pay structure, and all the additional paperwork which comes with that, than go through the awful change of reverting to a rational and fair pay structure. I’m not sure he’s entirely right about that, but at least the acknowledgment of the problem of workload was a step in the right direction.

Nicky Morgan responded by producing her own promise to look at ways of cutting teacher workload. This was followed up by an online questionnaire and an invitation to teachers to suggest ways in which workload could be reduced. Having once been a civil servant at the DFE, I don’t know which poor soul I feel the most sympathy for : the person who has to read all the letters which explain just who the teachers hold responsible for the recent workload increases; or the person who has to find a way of ignoring all the suggestions of reducing workload while pretending to be listening.

Finally, not to be outdone, even Nick Clegg got in on the act by announcing a “Teacher Workload Challenge”. It takes a special kind of politician to invite teachers to suggest ways of reducing interminable meetings and unnecessary form-filling by attending meetings and filling in a form. Nice work, Nick.

There is a general election just months away, and teachers are a large body of voters, spread across marginal seats everywhere, who are very likely to exercise their democratic rights. Could these two facts be connected to the sudden outbreak of concern over our welfare ? I’m occasionally accused of being cynical, but I don’t think I come close to the cynicism of these characters.

Marking the marks of the marker markers

Still, never look a gift horse in the mouth. If there’s a chance of getting rid of some unnecessary burdens we should take it, and by God there’s a lot to choose from. However, if you surveyed a hundred teachers, I’d be willing to bet that very high on their list at the moment would be one huge additional burden which has been breaking camels’ backs all over the country in the last 18 months : “double-marking”.

For the uninitiated, “double-marking” is the term which has come to be applied to a range of different marking approaches which tend to involve the following :

  1. Student does work
  2. Teacher marks work
  3. Student reads marking and makes comments on how to improve themselves
  4. Teacher reads student’s marking of their original marking, and marks their marks.
  5. Rinse and repeat as many times as your SLT feels appropriate.

This process, which arrived in most schools within the last 18 months, theoretically originated in Ofsted, although they’re trying to distance themselves from this previous object of their desire faster than the ex-members of Mike Read’s Fan Club. Even the uninitiated can see that this would dramatically multiply the amount of marking any teacher has to do, and as marking is probably the single biggest non-classroom time-drain on any teacher, then an increase here has a greater impact on workload than most other stand-alone schemes.

The Perfect Storm of Terrible Education Policy

What is also interesting about this policy is that it is in the centre of a perfect storm of education reforms and trends, all of which contribute to what has become an untenable situation and, as such, it demonstrates just how difficult it will be to try to hold some simplistic “bonfire of red tape” of the sort our politicians would love to announce. So what contributes to the madness of double/triple-marking ?

Ofsted. This demonstrates just how utterly central Ofsted is in Gove’s newly centralized schools system. Until last year, schools believed – with some justification – that Ofsted inspectors were demanding to see specific activities in lessons. As a result, such lessons became ubiquitous. Under pressure, Ofsted’s Head Office found itself in the bizarre position of issuing increasingly fraught orders to its own people to cease and desist in their demands. However, schools had no sooner breathed a sigh of relief than rumours began to circulate that Ofsted inspectors were now commenting closely on marking, and the need to “show dialogue with students” in books. This was the point at which a process which had always been an exercise used occasionally by some teachers, became a cast-iron requirement to be used by all teachers constantly. In this, we can see how no attempt to address workload can be successful without addressing the role Ofsted plays in dictating the minutiae of school life.

The reduction in school autonomy. Does anyone still believe that academization has brought greater freedom for schools ? I suppose in some ways it has : you perhaps won’t find as many Vera Wang tea sets or inflated “Executive” salaries in LEA-maintained schools. However, in terms of where it matters : the curriculum and classroom practice, we have never had such a centralized system. A pincer movement is underway, with the DFE dictating which subjects students must take and how those subjects must be assessed to an extent never before seen, while OFSTED dictates pedagogical practise in ever more excruciating detail. This is bad enough for all schools. However, pity those schools which have been forced into large academy chains, for whom a third layer of centralised control is potentially added, and a click of the fingers in a distant head office can demand conformity to whichever current fad, such as double-marking, is favoured by the chain executives. Reducing workload goes hand in hand with reducing centralised diktat, whether it be from Ofsted, the DFE or some Edubusiness head office. I look forward to seeing politicians embrace a policy of returning schools to the sort of autonomy they enjoyed before Gove’s centralisation.

The Cult of the Leader. It is one of the great ironies of the Govian reforms that they have emphasised – to the exclusion of almost all else – the importance of “leadership”, whilst simultaneously diminishing the role of leaders in schools by requiring them to become enforcers of central diktat. Even as politicians wax lyrical about independent, charismatic Clint Eastwoods, striding their corridors and forging their own paths, precisely the opposite pressures have been applied in schools, with anyone deviating from the Ofsted line likely to find themselves rapidly evicted from their offices, Boss chair or no Boss chair. NCTL offer courses in “senior leadership”, “middle leadership” and “leading from the bottom” (I made the last one up) which could roughly be summarized as “Do what you’re told by Ofsted/DFE, and make damn sure your teachers do what they’re told too”, while Ofsted’s criteria for judging leadership effectively demands that “leaders” prove they’ve faithfully imposed central policies such as Performance Related Pay irrespective of their own, or their staff’s views. With apologies to every independent-minded headteacher left out there, the double-marking disaster demonstrates just how lacking in independence many of our leaders feel they are, as they scramble to impose Ofsted’s apparent demands on their exhausted teachers. We have thus seen the redefinition of “leader” to mean “person who must enforce the will of someone else”. If we want to avoid a repeat of “double-triple marking” when the next rumour from Ofsted comes along, we need to find ways of restoring the original definition of “leader” as someone who actually gets to make decisions based on what’s best for their school, not the oft-cited “What Ofsted Want”.

The impossibility of “best practice”. I’ve blogged about this separately.  https://disidealist.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/best-practice-is-only-best-practice-if-you-can-practice-it/  This can’t be blamed solely on Ofsted, or even Gove. Occasionally the teaching profession is happy to make rods for its own back as enthusiasts adopt a particular cause and proselytise about it like 17th Century Ranters. The fact is that there is nothing wrong with double- or triple-marking as a concept. The evidence base is certainly not strong enough to force it to become compulsory in every classroom in the land, but as a tool for the teacher armoury, it’s interesting and may even be effective on occasion. However, it is hugely time-consuming, and as such cannot be considered best practice unless time is made for it to be used. It falls under the same category as individualised education: ideally, we all recognise that the best education may well be one to one, with bespoke lessons tailored to individual students; but that’s not remotely possible in the context of normal human beings and the limits of a 24-hour day. Likewise, double-marking. Education is never short of good ideas, but we are always short of time. It is unreasonable in the extreme to impose one good idea after another simply by calling them all “best practice”. Yet the concept of what constitutes “best practice” is now so crowded by idea after idea, as to be impossible for teachers to meet those expectations while also performing less important functions such as sleeping, eating, washing, or ever leaving the classroom. So no attempt to really tackle workload can take place unless we start stripping out the ideas and practices which have been loaded, one by one, on top of teachers, and take a much more realistic view of best practice as not just what is ideally desirable, but what is reasonably possible.

Deprofessionalisation of teachers.  The above factors all contribute here, as much of the gradual reduction in teacher autonomy has originated with Ofsted, and the arrival of the Cult of the Leader has gone hand in hand with the diminution of the discretion and status of the classroom teacher. However at the heart of the problem of workload is the issue of trust. Teachers are professionals with armouries filled with possible tools for use with their classes. Given the freedom and opportunity, they should choose when and where to deploy these tools – yes, including double-marking – to best effect. In doing so, they would also self-regulate the workload issue. Fundamentally, those arguing that teachers should not have this choice are arguing that teachers cannot be trusted, and would choose their own welfare over that of their students. This is certainly not my experience of teachers, most of whom repeatedly make sacrifices for their students which would be considered well beyond the pale in many jobs. Moreover, even if you prefer to believe that teachers cannot be trusted, then bear in mind that granting teachers greater discretion over the inputs they use would not prevent us from reaching judgements based on outcomes, should we feel the need. It is another irony which appears to have escaped our political masters, that the increasing prescription of inputs which teachers face is utterly incompatible with the increasing desire to hold teachers accountable for their results. If I teach lessons in the style you demand, and mark in the way you wish, then who is responsible for the results my students achieve, me or you ?

Less empathy please, more action

So ultimately, Nicky, Nick, and Tristram, if you really want to reduce my workload, then the answer is a bit more complicated than simply discontinuing a random in-school travel survey, or making data input five times a term instead of six (welcome though any relief would be). The work which is currently crushing teachers all over the country is the inevitable consequence of a set of major national policy stances which have all ultimately reduced the autonomy and professional discretion of teachers in the classroom. No longer are we independent professionals using our training and experience to deliver the best education we can using all the tools at our disposal. Rather we have become deliverers of a centrally dictated curriculum, using Ofsted-mandated methodology, enforced by disempowered “leaders”, citing practice which no longer takes account of reality, in schools which are less autonomous than they have been at any time since 1988.

I’m looking forward to seeing all those concrete proposals to tackle these real issues in the manifestos. I won’t hold my breath.

This article was originally written for the NUT’s “Expert View” section. https://www.teachers.org.uk/expertview


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