Workload: Getting marking and data under control

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
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High workload continues to have a negative impact on teacher wellbeing and retention. Dorothy Lepkowska speaks to education union Voice about the key challenges and how schools can reduce the marking and data burden for staff

Teaching is now one of the most stressful professions with some of the longest hours. The Teacher Workforce Dynamics report, published last term by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), found that teachers work around 50 hours a week on average – longer than nurses and police officers.

Stress-related illnesses in the profession is rife, the study revealed, with many teachers quitting for lower paid but more satisfying roles outside the school environment.

Education union Voice is among those who have been lobbying ministers to tackle the causes of teacher dissatisfaction and stress, while also advising its members on how best to deal with the negative effects of the job and to take care of themselves.

General secretary Deborah Lawson said the accountability regime is one of the biggest problems around workload for schools.

She explained: “Although Ofsted is planning changes to the inspection regime and is currently consulting on these, change in itself always creates more workload, especially at the beginning of the process. It drives schools to create paperwork, and teachers to over-mark and create data, in order to demonstrate what they are doing in the classroom.

“There does seem to be a wind of change, with ministers acknowledging that there is a problem, which we welcome, but we need to see what happens next and what measures they are going to put in place.

“At the moment, teachers are having to produce similar data in several different ways to satisfy several different audiences and this is adding to their workload.

“Schools strive for perfection but there is also a fear factor in maintaining inspection outcomes. If a school gets a good judgement, sustaining those standards can be difficult and can put pressure on everyone at the school.”

Ms Lawson said it is not necessarily headteachers who are driving this need for perfection, but often governing bodies are cascading that down through the head to teachers.

“School leaders are stressed too, by having things done to them. In recent years there has been a loss of agency for all school professionals, with others telling them what needs to be done because ‘this is what Ofsted wants to see’.”

Budgetary constraints are another source of concern, leading to stress and pressure in schools. Government statistics suggest we have more teaching assistants than ever in school, but our own figures don’t correlate with that,” Ms Lawson said.

“Schools are constantly having to restructure because of funding problems and it is the teaching assistants’ time that is being reduced, with teaching assistants in some schools disappearing altogether, leaving teachers to do more and more of the work, and with no time in which to draw breath.”

The situation, Ms Lawson added, is aggravated by teachers’ natural instincts to want to do the best they can for their students, not just educationally but with their personal development too.

This means trying to support young people with the many and varied problems that they bring into school and which can affect their academic progress.

“Teachers go into the job because they want to teach and to make a difference to children and young people, and to society generally, but once there they are pulled in so many different ways,” Ms Lawson continued.

“Teachers need to help themselves by understanding that they are stressed and to stop and stand still for a moment.”

She compared this need to stand still with an in-flight safety demonstration: “The cabin crew ask you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. In the same way, teachers have to look after themselves before they can think of helping someone else.

“There has to be a culture within the school to allow this sort of reflection to happen, and that does not happen overnight. It is about teamwork, being supportive and a creating environment where teachers know that it is understood that there are limits and no-one is expecting them, for example, to still be working at midnight.

“There are many school leaders who don’t want or expect teachers to be answering emails beyond a certain time in the evening, or at weekends. Teachers must be able to say ‘no’.

“It is up to the leadership to get the message across that saying ‘no’ is acceptable because it is in the best interests of the staff.

“There are many headteachers out there who are defying many of the expectations of external accountability, but it takes a great deal of courage for any head to do this without being given licence to do so by others.”

Schools also need to be clear on policies relating to marking and other tasks that can cause workload challenges for staff. These policies should be clear and not subject to frequent reform, so that practices are allowed to bed-in and to change organically depending on teachers’ workload and the requirements of the job.

“Teachers should be allowed to have agency within their school to suggest and affect change so that it is done collegiately and is not imposed on staff. They need to be part of the process,” Ms Lawson added.

Government acknowledgement of the impact of teacher workload would be more effective and realistic, she said, if ministers took a different approach to recruitment and retention.

“At the moment we have members who are telling us they don’t want to stay in teaching any more because of the workload and performance management regime. Instead of trying to attract new teachers we should be trying to retain the ones we already have,” Ms Lawson said.

School policies on marking

Three years ago, Voice carried out a survey of its members around workload issues and found that marking was cited as one of the biggest problems, echoing the government’s own Workload Challenge research and subsequent advice reports.

The findings helped Martin Hodge, professional officer with Voice, to take their views directly to government.

Mr Hodge was a member of a cross-union workload working group convened by the Department for Education (DfE) and which produced a number of documents looking at how schools and others can reduce the teacher workload burden (see further information).

He believes that the DfE does take complaints about teacher workload seriously, but says that government policy tends not to alleviate the problems.

“The results of the survey fed into my contribution to the working group and gave me some data to take to those meetings. But these issues are still being discussed now, and little has changed,” explained Mr Hodge, who is a former teacher himself.

Marking was found to be the single biggest cause of teacher workload, with teachers divided in their opinion as to its purpose.

“Really, it needs to feed into the discussion between the teacher and pupil about progress and it needs to be used for assessing how students are doing and where they are in their learning,” Mr Hodge continued.

“Marking should be a continuation of learning, with pupils getting feedback, though this could come from a variety of sources, including their peers. But we have found that many teachers spend hours marking for no real benefit.”

He said the Voice survey found that some foundation and key stage 1 teachers expected to mark in the same way as colleagues who were working in key stage 2. While feeding back in written form might be appropriate for older primary and secondary aged pupils, it wasn’t for youngsters who couldn’t yet read.

“You have to ensure that marking is useful to the student and the teacher. It should not be used as a form of accountability for Ofsted or other reasons,” Mr Hodge added.

“Once you take accountability out of something you reduce the pressure and that is one of the things contributing to teacher workload. I do think that the DfE knows and understands the pressures on teachers, but some of the initiatives that come from it become twisted in schools.”

Words matter, he said. Instead of having a policy on marking, a policy on giving feedback might be more appropriate, thus giving the concept of feeding back on pupil progress a whole new approach.

“Schools often don’t have a ‘feedback’ or ‘assessment’ policy, but they will have one on marking. Yet, the word marking suggests it is something that should be written down, while feedback might be given verbally.

“We may be dealing in semantics here, but it is important because it will make a difference to the way teachers work.

“Schools need to ask themselves what the purpose of marking is. If it is to scrutinise how teachers are doing their job, then it probably needs to be reviewed. Marking contributes so much to teacher workload but it is about collecting data and lesson planning.”

Mr Hodge acknowledged that some habits can be hard to break: “Even if the DfE told teachers to review how and why they mark work, many teachers would continue to do so because this is what they have always done and it works for them,” he said.

“They believe that written feedback is how they get the best out of their students and that they need documents for accountability purposes. Schools need to take the lead in changing this culture.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer. This article was originally published in SecEd on January 24, 2019.

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This article has been published by SecEd with sponsorship from Voice. It was written and produced to a brief agreed in advance with Voice.


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