Shared teacher planning to reduce workload

Written by: Dr Andrew K Shenton, Andy Sherlaw & Gareth Ellis | Published:
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Shared teacher planning could be an effective response to heavy teacher workloads. Dr Andrew K Shenton, Andy Sherlaw and Gareth Ellis report on research at Whitley Bay High School into possible approaches

Few issues in education provoke as much animated discussion among teachers as workload. Earlier this year, it was the subject of a wide-ranging article in SecEd (A workload audit: Thirty key questions for your school, SecEd, May 2017).

The continuing importance of the matter was evident at the beginning of the new academic year, when it was made known that Ofsted can now comment on the issue of workload as part of judgements on leadership (if they deem workload to be excessive when inspecting a particular school).

Furthermore, figures published in the Teacher Workload Survey 2016 (Department for Education, February 2017) reveal that classroom teachers and middle leaders work, on average, some 54.4 hours each week.

It can be no surprise, then, that at our time of writing the Department for Education (DfE) is involved in developing a workload reduction toolkit, based on ideas submitted by individual schools (Department for Education, November 2017).

The SecEd piece in May addressed workload in relation to planning/resources, marking and data management.

The provision of opportunities for collaborative planning was identified as one of the key means of tackling the workload challenge in terms of the first area.

The attractions of shared planning within individual subject departments have recently been underlined by the findings of research conducted by the writers of the present article at Whitley Bay High School, in North East England, as part of an investigation into workload funded by the National College for Teaching and Leadership.

The study revealed that shared planning could bring a wide range of benefits. As well as delivering substantial time savings for teachers and either maintaining or even raising standards of planning, the main benefits of shared planning cited by the participants were: better teamwork, improved lessons and resources, more uniformity of practice, positive reactions from students, greater use of people’s individual strengths and an enhanced awareness among staff of alternative teaching strategies and approaches.

In writing our final report, one of the biggest challenges lay in determining the form that our main outcomes should take.

If we set down in our conclusion a precise and detailed proposal as to how, on the basis of what we had learnt from our Whitley Bay data, we felt shared planning should take place, there was the danger that at least some elements of the design we put forward would not be suitable for all schools.

In short, the exactness of our specification would become a limitation. If, in order to counter this problem, we gave more generic advice, the charge could be levelled against us that our guidance was bland and insufficiently specific.

Ultimately, we decided to offer in our report a set of 10 recommendations grounded in our main findings. A recommendation was first noted as a principle/instruction and was explored in a paragraph below.

This article is devoted to an alternative approach. Here we began with the premise that, for shared planning to function effectively, a series of issues must be considered in advance and appropriate responses put in place.
We then derived from our results a set of pertinent questions which readers can answer in linear fashion in relation to their own schools. In responding to them, schools will construct a workload action plan that is uniquely theirs.

1, Products

  • What, in particular, is going to be created via shared planning? For example, will it be schemes of work, blocks of lessons for a particular year group, documents for revision, or materials to support teaching for a new specification?
  • How far is uniformity required from teacher to teacher or department to department in terms of the materials produced?
  • How much detail is expected to be provided within lesson plans in order to help staff who are not specialists in the content?
  • Is an “outline” approach to be preferred so as to give teachers greater scope for customising the lessons?

2, Processes

  • Can the material to be planned be divided in such a way as to exploit the specialisms of staff? For example, in science, can it be ensured that biology lessons are prepared by a biologist, chemistry lessons by a chemist, and physics lessons by a physicist?
  • Can this be done in a manner that is fair to all the teachers involved?
  • How will the required consistency be achieved, e.g. via prescription by the senior leadership team or the appropriate head(s) of department or through consensus after discussion among the teachers within a department?
  • In areas where a consensus is to be sought, how will this be reached if the department is large?
  • Will teachers work on planning single, individual lessons or sequences?
  • How will key issues such as differentiation, assessment and questioning of students be addressed?
  • Are the shared planning materials to be created by teachers working individually or in pairs so as to afford a measure of peer group support?
  • How will deadlines pertaining to the completion and availability of materials be agreed?
  • How will plans be critiqued and improved by departments?

3, Leadership

  • Are all staff fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of shared planning before they embark on it?
  • How much time will be set aside for shared planning initially?
  • How will this be incorporated into the working week?
  • What stipulations will be made by the senior leadership team with regard to what is produced and how it will be done? In short, what are the non-negotiables?
  • Is a degree of shared planning already in place in any departments? If so, what needs to be done to refine existing practices?
  • Will the senior leadership team require that the school’s own VLE is employed (if there is one)? If so, are all staff expected to adhere to a common arrangement of folders, subfolders and files?
  • Is the team spirit within each department sufficiently strong for shared planning to be a realistic option?
  • Are there any other barriers in a particular department that militate against the application of shared planning?
  • Is shared planning to be adopted as the school’s new modus operandi from the outset or will it be tested first in a trial period?
  • How will monitoring and evaluation take place with respect to the effectiveness of the processes and their impact on teaching and learning?
  • What arrangements can be made to support those who are based in one-person departments, e.g. in terms of working with comparable staff elsewhere? Can plans be put in place for staff to share their ideas with others, either directly or electronically, perhaps via online clouds, Skype or webinars?
  • How will the school counter the problem that teachers may simply pick up lessons prepared for them without giving due thought to how they may be adapted for their own use?

4, Facilitating support

  • Will teachers print/copy their own materials or will it be done centrally through a reprographics department?
  • How will the documentation created via the shared planning process be stored and retrieved?
  • If ICT is to be involved, is the technological infrastructure effective enough to satisfy teachers’ requirements in relation to the storage and retrieval of shared planning documentation?
  • If a VLE is to be used will it be accessible to teachers at home? How will access to individual documents be kept secure? How will the process of making revisions to and new versions of existing documents be managed?

Conclusion

Of all the various strategies that Whitley Bay High School teachers adopted with the aim of reducing workload associated with planning and the preparation of resources, some form of shared planning was by far the most frequent response and that which offered the biggest attractions.

The benefits extended well beyond the method’s potential for lessening the time staff would spend planning, and advantages in other, ostensibly unconnected, areas frequently accrued.

In order to maximise these positives, it is important to go into the work accepting the full implications of the shared planning method and, in particular, appreciating what impositions it makes on senior leaders, heads of department and individual teachers.

This understanding is best achieved by considering the range of pertinent questions beforehand and then developing as a blueprint a design that applies effective solutions.

For senior leaders and heads of department, the key skills required are of a generic nature. The most fundamental among them include building morale and team-work, making time available for the work to take place, promoting good practice, managing expectations in such a way that they are reasonable, cultivating appropriate attitudes, forging agreement among different teachers and, ultimately, of course, ensuring excellent lessons.

  • Dr Andrew K Shenton is a research consultant. Andy Sherlaw is deputy headteacher and Gareth Ellis research and development officer at Whitley Bay High School.

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