We need concerted action on teacher workload

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Coming out of the pandemic, the number of teachers thinking about quitting is deeply worrying. Deborah Lawson says the time is now for concerted action on workload and wellbeing. She suggests how…

As we come out of the pandemic, one message has sounded loud and clear: “Be kind.”

As Ofsted inspections resume, the government introduces new primary assessments, and we again prepare for exams, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed – but maybe there is hope on the horizon and there are things we can learn from the past.

In March, Voice Community surveyed its members to understand more about their experiences during the pandemic and their hopes and fears for the future.

It came as no surprise to confirm that morale is low, and recruitment and retention poor; 22 per cent said they planned to leave education within the next three years, and it is mostly because of workload and the pressures of the role.

One member highlighted that many staff are leaving “because the job itself is challenging enough but the way we have been treated throughout the pandemic has been shocking” (Voice, 2021).

The most recent School Workforce Survey for England (DfE, 2021a) concurs with our findings. It shows that 3,200 qualified teachers left the profession between 2018 and 2019 and just 67 per cent of new starters remained in teaching after five years.

Meanwhile, Education Support's annual Teacher Wellbeing Index (2020) found the wellbeing of education staff working in the UK was consistently lower than the general population. High workload was a key factor, and 62 per cent of education staff and 77 per cent of senior leaders described themselves as stressed.

What’s the solution?

We need to work together, listen to each other, and support each other. Don’t try to do everything on your own. Leaders should not try to implement workload reduction strategies without discussing them with staff first.

It might sound like a great idea to tell all staff they must go home at 5pm. But instead of reducing workload, this may have the opposite effect if staff then take work home. And what about those who go home earlier to spend time with young families but then work later – will they now feel obliged to stay until 5pm?

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen technological solutions really come to the fore. They don’t hold all the answers and can be a burden in our “instant response” culture, but with sensitive and considered implementation, and a right to “switch-off”, technology can be useful in reducing workload.

Technology can enrich learning in the classroom and extend it into the home, allowing students to revisit and consolidate their learning at their own pace, and engaging parents. Many of these tools adapt to learners’ skills and abilities and provide feedback to the teacher to help with planning and assessment – without increasing workload.

The Wellbeing Charter

The Department for Education’s Wellbeing Charter (DfE, 2021b) commits the government to reducing workload and bureaucracy by considering the impact of policy changes on staff wellbeing, improving data collection, building staff wellbeing and mental health into the recruitment and retention strategy, breaking down the stigma around mental health, and embedding wellbeing into training and professional development.

Ofsted – so long a recognised driver of workload – must now take staff wellbeing into account in its judgements, including whether its framework is having inadvertent impacts on staff wellbeing.


In 2016, the DfE published independent reports on planning, marking and data, which recommended practical ways to manage workload (for summary and analysis of these reports and download links, see SecEd, 2017).

Planning: Lesson-planning is necessary, but detailed plans can become “box-ticking” that creates unnecessary workload. Early career teachers (ECTs) might need to plan each lesson, but for more experienced teachers it can become a crutch and take time away from real planning addressing what pupils need. Detailed plans do not necessarily prove that there has been effective planning for pupil progress and attainment. The bottom line is this: plan effective lessons but do not plan to prove it.

Marking: Assessment is vital to teaching but must be effective. Should teachers provide extensive written comments on every piece of work? What about writing down the verbal feedback that has been given? Perhaps there is a cultural challenge here? Do teachers feel that they must spend hours marking in order to be a good teacher.

Marking should be manageable, meaningful, and motivating. The Teachers' Standards state that teachers should “give pupils regular feedback, both orally and through accurate marking, and encourage pupils to respond to the feedback”. This doesn’t mean didactic marking where pupils provide a written response to feedback: simply that pupils should act on the feedback in subsequent work. No government or Ofsted guidance has deep-marking as a requirement.

Data: The work of the independent review group on data states “excessive data collection and processing takes teachers, school leaders, and officials away from more productive tasks”. It advises that schools should not routinely collect formative assessment data, and summative data should be collected only as frequently as is essential on agreed data collection points. Be prepared to stop collecting data if the burden of collection outweighs its use.

What needs to happen?

First, teachers, schools, and colleges need adequate resources and funding to perform their duties. PPA (planning, preparation and assessment) time needs to be increased, too.

Elsewhere, we must place mental health and wellbeing at the heart of all education policy decisions, we must follow the recommendations of the DfE’s 2016 workload groups, and we must review the current accountability system.

Ultimately, we have to ask: if it doesn’t improve outcomes for children and it increases workload, then why are we doing it?

  • Deborah Lawson is assistant general secretary of Community Union (Voice education section). Read her previous SecEd articles via https://bit.ly/seced-lawson

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