Winning on workload

The themes of workload, stress and pressure continue in education. Julian Stanley urges us to make 2018 the year of effective change to working practices.

The latest official data has revealed a five per cent increase in 2016/17 in the number of teachers being signed off work because of workload pressures and mental health issues.

The figures, a response to a mass Freedom of Information request submitted by the Liberal Democrats, were published in the Guardian earlier this month (‘Epidemic of stress’ blamed for 3,750 teachers on long-term sick leave, Guardian, January 2018).

They came out just a few days after UCAS figures pointed separately to a major decline in teacher training applications compared with just a year ago. 

Recruitment figures for the 2018/19 intake up to Christmas appeared to have fallen by a third on the previous December (to 6,510). 

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), described the fall as nothing short of “disastrous” and blamed workload and increasing accountability as major reasons. The current deluge in negative headlines around the profession surely won’t have helped.

These themes are constant in education and reflect the results of the Education Support Partnership’s 2017 health survey and report – The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Education Professionals in the UK.

We found that 75 per cent of teachers and school leaders had experienced physical and mental health issues in the last two years that were attributable to work – and workload was cited as the leading factor by the vast majority of respondents.

For any leaders looking hard to find ways to support their workforce through the current storm, to sustain their own and their workforce’s wellbeing, it is worth looking at existing practical advice and tools as well as new ideas and research.

A recent proposal to reduce workload through shared teacher planning is one such example. Based on research by Whitley Bay High School (and funded by the National College for Teaching and Leadership), it is a response to the Department for Education’s on-going work to create a teacher workload reduction toolkit.

The trial resulted in an overwhelming 95 per cent of the school’s staff saying they felt that the quality of the lessons had improved as a result of shared planning, while 85 per cent felt that it had successfully reduced their workload. The architects of this research project wrote about their findings and impact recently in SecEd (Shared teacher planning to reduce workload, SecEd, January 2018).

As the spring term gathers pace, it is always helpful to remind ourselves that despite policy change beyond one’s control, leaders do have the ability to determine a workload agenda for their school or institution and to lead from the front. Those who are brave enough to say no to more and more data collection, yes to smarter marking and no to over-scrutiny of lesson planning will be supporting and improving the wellbeing of their workforce.

At the same time let’s not overlook existing tools and strategies for both teachers and school leaders that can reduce and manage workloads:

  • There will always be more to do than time to do it. Prioritise as far as you can and speak up when you can see there is another way to tackle what is required. Is there a way that colleagues could work together to share the load?
  • Limit checking emails to two to three times a day.
  • Try to minimise unnecessary meetings and encourage colleagues and other team members to do the same. We can all work smarter. This may sound easier said than done but a brief audit of how you spend your time could reveal some surprising time-wasters that could be easily and quickly tackled. Could many emails be more quickly and efficiently resolved with a single phone call? In meetings, what can we do to keep on track with the agenda?
  • Among many recommendations, the excellent
  • Te@chertoolkit suggests “do more do less”. It requires initial careful analysis of what teachers do and then to ask whether you should do more or less of any aspects of your planning, progress-tracking or feeding back to students. You may be surprised to find that areas you spend a lot of time on deliver little while practices you spend little time on could deliver better with more time dedicated to it.
  • Use tech to become more efficient and to grow your capacity. There is a plethora of possibilities out there including easily accessible apps and many online recommendations from trusted sources.
  • Te@chertoolkit for example says that using Google documents to collaborate “has transformed my work”.
  • Separate home from work. It is easy to say when 50 to 60-hours-a-week are the norm in education, but it is so important to have time away from the stresses of the job. Clear breaks will clear your head, give you perspective and make you more productive during the working day. When you take work home, define how long you will spend on it, where you will work and when you will stop – and stick to these limits.

So with both the Department for Education and Ofsted clearly signalling that they are hearing the message around unnecessary workload, let’s focus in schools on the urgent need for change. 

How we can help

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