February 2016


  • Storm warning
    Julia Harnden looks at what the outcome of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review means for education and how schools can navigate the choppy waters ahead. More
  • Surviving trauma
    Kate Dolmor’s world was turned upside down when her husband became gravely ill. Support from the ASCL Benevolent Fund has helped Kate and her family deal with the practical and personal fall-out ever since. More
  • First principles
    The profession needs to take back the initiative on assessment and recover the ground lost during the decades when it became a tool of accountability rather than an aid to learning, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Ease the pressure
    Leaders need to set clear strategies now for coping with their school’s or college’s workload if they are to confront the challenges of the next few years. Suzanne O’Farrell and Sam Ellis, leaders of a new ASCL course on the subject, set out the issues. More
  • Opening minds
    Simon Cohen, a keynote speaker at ASCL’s Annual Conference, talks to Julie Nightingale about giving away his business, laughing with the Dalai Lama and why children are our biggest source of wisdom. More
  • A common purpose
    The English and Welsh education systems may be diverging but both must be shaped by the values of their educators if improvement is to be sustained, say ASCL’s Leora Cruddas and Tim Pratt. More
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Ease the pressure

Leaders need to set clear strategies now for coping with their school’s or college’s workload if they are to confront the challenges of the next few years. Suzanne O’Farrell and Sam Ellis, leaders of a new ASCL course on the subject, set out the issues.

Managing workload at a time when there are ever-increasing demands on staff and leaders will be one of the toughest tasks for school and college leaders over the next few years. To help, we are running an ASCL Professional Development course covering all aspects of the subject in February and March. 

‘Managing the workload’ sounds simple when you read about it in a management text or listen to one of the many gurus selling their version of the magic wand that brings success. It usually comes down to some version of identifying the task or tasks, building the relevant teams and making sure that the members of those teams head broadly in the right direction. 

These basic ideas come dressed in all sorts of guises and frequently seem to have a magic number such as seven associated with them: ‘The seven essential ingredients of snake oil’ springs to mind as a contender. The hard truth about the next few years in school leadership is that all leaders will need something more than seven magic wands and a pot of snake oil: the imperative has been to do more with less since 2010 and it isn’t about to get any better.

The educational drivers increasing the pressure and workload on schools and their leadership include Ofsted, floor targets, comparable outcomes and the wider accountability agenda. At the same time, schools have to work with the challenges of the recruitment and retention of key staff needed to deliver a curriculum with seemingly ever-shifting requirements. 

Static pupil funding 

Underpinning, or possibly undermining, any effort to work with these drivers and challenges is the static level of per pupil funding set against significantly increasing costs and a serious real terms fall in funding for all institutions with a post-16 section. Unless schools are allowed to run deficit budgets, teachers will, on average, need to teach more and classes will need to increase in size. 

There is clearly a physical limit to the size of a class determined by the rooms of the building you work in. There is also a limit to the number of quality lessons any human being can prepare, deliver and follow up on in a week before they become ineffective through exhaustion. The funding situation is driving school staff closer and closer to these limits. 

The task for leaders is to be clear about what are the essential and right things for staff in their school to focus on and to manage the workload of the staff so they have the capacity to deliver to the best of their ability. 

In response to Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan’s workload challenge survey, the government has set up three working groups looking at how to reduce teacher workload focusing on marking, planning and resources, and data management. Their guidance on best practice is due in the summer term. 

Pervading all three issues is the spectre of Ofsted and inspectors’ quest for evidence. Ofsted has made a concerted effort to clarify what inspectors can ask for during inspection and has published a briefing sheet highlighting these that can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/pxupcot It outlines the types of documentation to support an inspection and includes information you would normally have in place, such as attendance information, performance management, safeguarding referrals and records of the evaluation of the quality of teaching, learning and assessment. 

We have to hope that this clear policy and welcome rhetoric from Ofsted’s senior leaders is also reflected in inspectors’ practice on the ground. Will the move by Ofsted to reclaim all training in-house for inspectors, so that they are oozing ‘professional judgement’, herald a new breed of inspector? One who will not be repeatedly asking for yet more documents and evidence from schools to support their evidence base? We will have to wait and see. Ofsted should focus on outcomes not on processes and ensure that their inspectors look at impact rather than compliance. 

It may also be time to reflect on your approach to some aspects of your work and ask yourself some key questions. For whom am I doing this? Will it improve the quality of teaching? What impact will it have on students? Can we do this in a more efficient or more effective way? The challenge for leaders is to stand back and question what you and your staff are doing and why. Is it because you have always done it that way or that you think inspectors expect to see it? If so, it may be time to rethink. 

Setting priorities

Time is teachers’ most precious commodity. A key role for leaders is helping your staff manage and set their own priorities, working with them so that they too ask themselves fundamental questions about the impact of their work on their students’ learning. 

Working with staff to establish what is essential – the clear expectation that they plan, teach and assess to the best of their ability – may help teachers and leaders plan their time effectively to do what is of most value. 

Revisiting school policies and practices with this clear line of sight could benefit all concerned – for example, revisiting a marking policy with your teachers to achieve a consensus about who exactly you are marking for, what the impact is, what you mark and how. 

From the government’s survey on workload, teacher planning emerged as a key area contributing to workload and we probably all agree that some planning practices are more effective than others with the input–output ratio not evenly distributed. Planning is a skill that can be shared with planning coaches or mentors to help inexperienced teachers to identify the learning that is to take place. Sharing effective practice in how teachers can maximise the time spent on planning to produce as much actual learning in the classroom as possible, parallel planning, collaborative planning of schemes of learning, common assessments and resource sharing across departments can all contribute to reducing workload while optimising student achievement. 

Data collection 

Collecting data is often perceived as adding to workload so reflecting on what data is required to lead teaching and learning effectively is your starting point. If teachers and middle leaders are then involved in the decisions taken as a result of data collection it will enable them to see the connection between entering the data and their practice. There is no intrinsic value in recording formative assessment; what matters is that it is acted on to support students’ progress. The recently published report from the government Commission on Assessment without Levels states that schools should consider carefully what extra value would be achieved by additional recording and whether it is worth the additional workload. 

Directing the personal and professional paradigms in a school, maintaining a focus on productivity rather than perfection and teaching all team members to deal effectively with the chaos of interruptions that so easily destroy effective work in schools is not simple. Our ASCL Professional Development course will not offer any magic wands or snake oil. What it will do is to clarify the problem, identify practical strategies and outline what may be financially viable