The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Exploring teacher workload

Since the publication of Making Data Work (the DfE Workload Advisory Group’s report on data use and workload) I have been invited in to explore workload in a number of schools. The following three lines of questioning have often been helpful in encouraging constructive explorations of teacher and leader workload.

1. How much work do teachers have to do?
Teachers (especially those without TLRs or leadership roles) have limited discretionary time. In England they spend more non-teaching time working than their peers elsewhere. It makes sense to quantify and reduce where possible the time demands associated with teaching roles. (TALIS 2013: Working Conditions, Teacher Job Satisfaction and Retention) 

Schools have developed a range of strategies here including collaborative planning; sharing of resources; streamlined marking; investment in PPA time etc. However, whilst there are many examples of great practice, there are also numerous examples where policies remain unchallenged and unhelpful perhaps simply because no-one has had the time to review them. Dr Caroline Creaby once recommended that schools appoint directors of strategic abandonment whose job it is to seek out and make just these sorts of recommendations!

Roles and practices in schools are rarely designed from scratch, they often develop and grow over time and may do so in ways which lead to high strain with little tangible gain.

Ben White

What to ask?
A sample of teachers could be asked to map out the specific activities which fill their working week. A google form asking for a brief daily summary could prove illuminative as does exploring this same issue with a small focus group of staff.

Periodic reminders of the limited discretionary time teachers have and how it is currently used, may also steer leaders’ decisions around introducing additional ad hoc demands.

2. What sort of work are teachers required to do?

The number of hours which teachers report working does not actually predict whether or not they perceive their workload to be problematic.

In addition to considering whether teachers have too much work, school and trust leaders should consider whether they have the wrong sort of work. Crawford et al (2010), point out that whilst some demands (hindrance demands) are associated with increased burnout and lower engagement, others (challenge demands) are actually associated with greater engagement and minimal impact upon perceived levels of burnout. By asking the right questions leaders may be able to make big improvements by eliminating unnecessary ‘hindrance demands’.

What to ask?
Asking staff to identify and then categorise work demands as either challenges or hindrances can also be illuminative.

Questions about data use; how is data gathered; to what end; how frequently etc. may also be interesting.

This could well highlight recent improvements as revised Ofsted demands around data and awareness of workload issues have prompted many schools to make significant changes – for example reducing data entries from 6 or more per year group per year to the 2 or 3 recommended in Making Data Work.

As Amanda Spielman advised last year: ‘If someone shows you a great big spreadsheet, you might want to ask who pulled it together and for what purpose. Who does the data help? Does it add value beyond what you’d get from talking to a teacher or head of department? Was it worth the time taken out of the teacher’s day to enter all those numbers?’

3. Teaching can be hard work. What does this trust do to help support teachers and leaders?
Changing people’s thinking, understanding and behaviour is tough. Working with 30 individuals and trying to achieve this, for all of them, simultaneously, is tougher still. Strains inherent to teaching are often compounded by external dynamics such as changing accountability measures.

Parker (2014) identified three tiers of organisational response to work related burnout. Each is important, though generally too little attention is paid to the primary tier.

  • Tertiary: Supporting staff when they are experiencing full burnout.
  • Secondary: Helping staff cope with the strains of the role.
  • Primary: Shaping job-roles to minimise or eliminate strain.

What to ask?
How is well-being monitored and how are individuals experiencing severe difficulties supported?

What does a school trust do to help ease the inevitable strains and stresses of teaching? This tier needs careful consideration as many teachers find that they cope best with the strain of teaching by getting home and perhaps seeing their families! Furthermore, there may be a risk of normalising strain rather than reducing it. However access to optional support; practical policies; running clubs; wine and cheese clubs; tea and coffee provision at break-time etc. may simply be good in themselves and could help foster a supportive working environment.

At the primary level, questions about the theory of action around particular practices and roles can be helpful i.e. Why are we doing X? What do we expect to achieve? Is this a good use of resources? Roles and practices in schools are rarely designed from scratch, they often develop and grow over time and may do so in ways which lead to high strain with little tangible gain. In some cases efficiency gains are not what is needed. As Peter Drucker put it: ‘There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all’.