December 2014


  • re:SEND
    Richard Newton Chance explores how the calculation of funding for special needs education is changing as the system moves from statements to education, health and care plans (EHCPs). More
  • Tackling Inequality
    Carolyn Roberts wonders why inequality persists when it comes to recruiting leaders and offers some ideas regarding how to tackle the barriers still faced by key groups More
  • Rethinking post-16 advice
    Changes to AS and A levels are creating a minefield when it comes to advising students on post-16 options. Tim Miller outlines the issues and some possible solutions. More
  • Meducation
    Chronic health conditions can permanently damage a young person’s educational chances without the right support. Libby Dowling looks at the policies, training and other measures schools need to think about under a new legal duty. More
  • Impact is what counts
    Workload pressures in schools are exacerb ated by the often arbitrary demands of ‘compliance’, says Brian Lightman. The government needs to recognise the fact and take a grown-up approach to accountability and inspection. More
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Impact is what counts

Workload pressures in schools are exacerbated by the often arbitrary demands of ‘compliance’, says Brian Lightman. The government needs to recognise the fact and take a grown-up approach to accountability and inspection.

Workload is not a new problem. For many years, surveys of teachers and senior leaders in this country have reported long hours. The latest Department for Education (DfE) workload diary survey reported an average of more than 50 hours per week for teachers and more than 60 for headteachers.

The recent TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) report from the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the international economic thinktank, broadly correlates with those findings, showing that the working week for teachers in England is one of the highest across all the countries surveyed.

We know that people do not go into teaching or school leadership for an easy life. Teachers have a strong commitment to their students and many will go the extra mile to help them succeed. That inevitably involves additional work.

We don’t want to discourage that kind of commitment and enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is a deep-seated long-hours culture in our profession. It is certainly not in our interest that we or our staff should be unable to enjoy any kind of work-life balance. Nor is the prospect of 14-hour working days – the kind we witnessed in the recent Tough Young Teachers documentary – a way of attracting the best people into our profession.

In her speech to the Conservative Party conference in September, Secretary of State Nicky Morgan said that her top priority is to reduce the overall burden on teachers. She said: “I don’t want my child to be taught by someone too tired, too stressed and too anxious to do the job well.” I would add to that I don’t want our school and college leaders to be too tired, too stressed and too anxious to do the job well either.

Over the years there have been attempts to address teacher workload. The ‘workforce remodelling’ programme under the last government recognised that teachers were spending a significant amount of time on duties that did not require their professional expertise. However, the focus of this valuable work was on what teachers should not do rather than defining what activities they should focus on to have the greatest impact.

Robust topic

Encouragingly, the Secretary of State has engaged actively in the programme of talks underway between the education unions and her officials at which workload has been a robust topic for discussion. However, too often in the past discussions about workload have been characterised by simplistic statements about ‘paperwork’ and ‘bureaucracy’.

ASCL believes that we need a more sophisticated understanding and definition of unnecessary teacher workload. We have proposed a working definition: ‘Unnecessary workload is that which is done for compliance processes, which take away from the complex process of teaching and learning.’

Our view on this has been informed by discussions in our national Council and evidence drawn from research. We believe that there are two key themes driving unnecessary workload: duplication of effort; and a level of detail prompted by compliance rather than impact.

The greatest driver of workload has undoubtedly been the accountability system that creates the perverse incentive of forcing schools and colleges to be in a state of perpetual readiness for inspection and following a curriculum that meets other performance measures. So, rather than doing things because they are right for the students, the driver has been what we feel we need to do in order to demonstrate that we meet a particular accountability requirement.


Ofsted has been a major driver of such behaviour and is actively trying to ‘bust’ myths and perceptions that are currently in circulation. This was the intention behind the recent document sent to all schools that provides useful clarification. Importantly, this document begins with a reminder that it is ‘[u]p to schools themselves to determine their practices and for leadership teams to justify these on their own merits rather than by reference to the inspection handbook’.

There is, however, a tension here. Like the previous workforce agreement that stated 21 tasks that teachers should not do, this document emphasises what Ofsted does not require schools to do. Inspectors can’t and shouldn’t require schools to do anything – Ofsted is a regulator whose duty it is to inspect and make judgements. The reality, however, has been different. What we now need to see is inspectors abiding by the statements in the Ofsted document about what is not required.

The real test will be when schools are able to go into inspections with confidence and engage in genuine professional dialogue about their work. While we are still hearing about some problems we are also seeing positive steps and hearing encouraging feedback from members about recent inspection experiences.

It is therefore timely for leadership teams to discuss workload issues with their staff and look at how they can refocus their work so that the emphasis is solidly on impact rather than compliance.

Ten-point plan

To support this, ASCL has drawn up a ten-point plan to mobilise the whole system (see

Our plan contains proposals for government and proposals for school and college leaders. For government they are:

  • The current, overly complicated accountability and inspection systems have workload implications. Accountability measures should focus only on the most valuable information that makes the greatest improvement.
  • Ofsted should put a stop to inspection practices that increase compliance-based workload. The perception is that Ofsted inspectors require certain evidence or specific practices. Ofsted should not require schools to do anything. Its focus should be on impact rather than process.
  • School and college leaders need a period of stability to implement the current reforms to curriculum, assessment and qualifications. There should be no further ad hoc changes.
  • Decreasing real-term funding means that schools and colleges are having to do more with less. Some efficiency savings can be made but there is a point at which workloads have to increase. We need to move swiftly towards a national fair funding formula.
  • Self-evaluation should not be a bureaucratic exercise. It is right that no one form of self-evaluation is mandated or required. For school and college leaders we have suggested the following:
  • Marking books is an important part of student feedback but inordinate amounts of writing in books is not always the most effective use of teacher time. It is more important that teachers show that they are helping students to develop, whether that is through dialogue or written feedback, than that they are able to present beautifully detailed, marked books.
  • Lesson planning and preparation is important, but it should not be a bureaucratic and complicated process. It should vary with the teacher’s level of experience, familiarity with the material and preferred style. The focus should be on impact rather than compliance.
  • We need to free staff from unnecessary fear, uncertainty and doubt about inspection and/or myths about what they believe inspectors want to see. School and college leaders can help reassure their staff about this.
  • Just because ICT systems can support very detailed planning and reporting does not mean that they should be used in that way. What matters is that systems are used effectively to support and protect time for professional dialogue.
  • Parents want good quality conversations with teachers that feel personal and specific to their child. The paperwork needs to support this rather than becoming an end in itself.

While we continue to discuss these issues with the current government and opposition we would also encourage detailed discussion in school. In a self-improving system it will be down to us to drive a genuine professional dialogue about these matters. That could do more to raise standards than any top-down government initiative or ministerial commitment.

Find out more

For more on the issue of workload, read the views of ASCL members on page 32.

Brian Lightman is ASCL General Secretary