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Pots and kettles; some thoughts on teacher workload

  • Teachers
  • Workload
B Lightman
Brian Lightman 29 April, 2018

Pots and kettles; some thoughts on teacher workload

When I reflect on my years as a teacher and school leader I definitely worked long hours. Workload is not a new problem. With me it was as much self-inflicted and a reflection of my own faults as part of a prevailing culture. I therefore apologise if pots and kettles come to mind as I write this.

Although much has been said about the issue of teacher workload, the problem is not going away. At the 2018 ASCL conference a commitment was made by the Secretary of State and the Chief Inspector to place their weight behind addressing the issue. This was rightly welcomed by many and equally understandably viewed with scepticism by others. After all there have been lots of speeches, lots of meetings and lots of promises.

My fear however is that much of this effort is missing the point by focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause of this problem, namely the deep-seated culture that underlies it.

I currently spend a large amount of time working with more than thirty schools in very varied contexts. Without exception I see hard-working, conscientious teachers who are doing their very best within what can only be described as a challenging context.

Many of those teachers feel a sense of powerlessness over their professional work. The causes are well known and include:

  • the rushed implementation of new qualifications about which the information they need to prepare students effectively has been slow to come and about which it is extremely hard to reach a professional prediction of likely outcomes due to the comparable outcomes methodology.
  • a lack of ownership of the National Curriculum or the new qualifications which were designed without their involvement.
  • the ever-present spectre of a high stakes accountability system that includes measures they cannot predict including a definition of progress which is not defined until after the event and is based on an input measure the validity of which has not been tested.
  • Frequent changes to accountability measures and their publication.


Whatever Ofsted says about myths this accountability system requires schools to confidently be able to justify their evaluation of their relative strengths and areas for development with some kind of evidence.

Add to all of this the constraints around resourcing and staff recruitment and the erosion of pay and you have a perfect recipe for stress and anxiety which leads to a a collective fear that we are never doing enough.

These are the causes of workload.

If there were simple answers we would have found them years ago so what can we do?

  •  Teachers want to be professionals. The last thing we need is to become clock watchers or simply oppose everything governments want to do.
  • Teachers want to be trusted in their shared efforts to do the very best for every young person in our care.
  • Teachers want to be able to do their job properly. Many teachers and schools leaders feel that they are losing that control.

So here are some ideas:

  • The profession needs to step up and be much more assertive. By this I mean that we need to take control of our destiny.
  • We need to assert our high ambitions and continue to work tirelessly towards this.
  • Headteachers need to have the confidence to enact their vision assertively. If attacked for this we as a profession need to stand up to that bullying.
  • We need to hold ourselves, robustly and rigorously to account for the outcomes of our pupils (and that means far more than examination results however important they are).
  • We need to evaluate all aspects of our work critically working collaboratively with colleagues to ensure rigour and a degree of independence.
  • We need to take a close look about how we provide for the wellbeing of our staff, how we value and trust them and how we enable them to develop.
  • We need to create a culture in our schools of openness and transparency in which, collectively, we can root out unnecessary work and focus our efforts on what matters for our students.
  • All of this needs to happen in a non-confrontational, collaborative, positive and constructive climate. Newly qualified teachers, long serving ones and staff at all levels and their representatives need to be equally involved and heard as this is developed.

To make this work, governments need to redefine their role.

There needs to be genuine engagement with the profession and a redefined relationship built on mutual respect and recognition/agreement of a shared, high ambition for our education service.

There has to be a recognition of the true costs of any development or new requirement and effective budgeting to cover these. Examples such as the requirement in the latest statutory guidance on careers to employ a careers leader should not have been included without the funding for such posts. This will involve much more effective prioritisation and a rejection of pilots and bidding processes.

Planning of future developments and reforms must take place with the full involvement of the profession in order to make it manageable. In turn the profession must remain committed to continuous improvement and embrace the need for well-planned reforms based on strong evidence and genuine need.

The accountability system has to change, firstly in its culture and secondly in its implementation. Teachers and school leaders understand the need for governments to account for the billions they spend on education. By empowering the profession to be agents of their own accountability the role of an inspectorate and the RSCs could become far more focused on schools which are underperforming and identifying ways of ensuring that they have the capacity to improve. Surveys of aspects of the curriculum could lead to the reintroduction of the kinds of valuable best practice reports that used to be so helpful for schools.

Grades should be abolished. There is a growing consensus that summarising the work of a complex organisation in one word at the end of a brief visit is unhelpful at best. I am delighted that the NAHT has established a commission to look into the whole issue of accountability. That exemplifies exactly the kind of working I have advocated.

It is impossible to do justice to a topic of this importance and magnitude in a short blog. However, one of the things I have found as a freelance consultant is that sometimes a statement of the obvious is just what is needed. I live in hope that the conversation that is beginning to take place reflects a window of opportunity to create the great education service to which we all aspire.

Brian Lightman FRSA

Director – Lightman Consulting Ltd