Teacher Workload: The Elephant in the Room?

A personal perspective from Lara Ginn

Author: Alison Clements/16 November 2016/Categories: Blogs

Teacher workload is among one of the greatest issues schools face nowadays. Over recent years this has become a source of wide scale discussion within the profession and in the media. The government has, through recent independent reviews, endeavoured to identify some of the primary factors causing the heavy workload faced by teaching staff and means by which all stakeholders can redress this.

Teacher workload, the associated stress and the continual struggle to achieve a healthy work life balance, pose significant issues particularly in terms of the recruitment, retention and the health of staff. Workload creates a constant juggling act for school leaders trying to manage the pressures placed upon them and consider and care for the wellbeing of staff. A teacher, however talented and dedicated, cannot be as effective as possible if overwhelmed by the workload they face. Logic would suggest, therefore, that young people will not receive the best quality education if workload is not reduced.

The key question of what can be done to reduce teacher workload may, as the three independent reviews from March 2016 suggest, have some common threads which teachers, school leaders and governors can and should consider. However, it is imperative that this is reflected upon within the context and uniqueness of each setting. The reduction in teacher workload cannot be affective if stakeholders adopt a one size fits all approach. Neither can it be achieved if leaders and teachers are not fully committed to it.

Personal Experiences

When sitting down to write a blog about teacher workload it seems important to reflect on one’s own personal experiences of this as well as recent documentation. Now clearly a personal experience is just that, however it can serve as an example of the situation as a whole. So prior to writing, I decided to reflect on what it is that contributes to my workload – the irony of this being I undertook that part of the preparation for this blog some time ago but then never seemed to find the time during the term to sit down to write the rest.

When considering my workload these are what I felt contributed either in a small or indeed much larger way to it:

  • Researching and planning lessons
  • Resourcing lessons
  • Creating a stimulating, engaging and supportive learning environment
  • Setting up a classroom appropriately in order to deliver a lesson/lessons
  • Delivering lessons
  • Assessing pupil progress – both formative and summative assessment
  • Assessing pupil progress - marking
  • Inputting and analysing data
  • Subject leadership responsibilities – sometimes multiple and the extent of time this takes being very much dependent on the subject and expertise of staff but including observations and staff development.
  • Departmental or phase responsibilities
  • Pastoral responsibilities
  • Forging and developing effective links with parents via paper, email and face to face communication.
  • Meetings – staff meetings, department meetings, phase meetings, team meetings, pupil progress meetings etc.
  • Own professional development

I am sure that there is much that I have left off the list, however it serves as a clear example why, unlike some outside the profession still seem to misguidedly believe, a teacher’s job does not start at 8:30 and end at 3:30. In actual fact I think it is fair to say, as I sit here in half term writing this, that a teacher’s job is never done.

Where then do you as a teacher and leader draw the line? How do you know what tasks within your daily and weekly schedule are important? How do you achieve all that is needed in order that pupils receive the best quality education and optimise their chances of progress? How, if a teacher’s job is never done, do you balance the high demands of the profession and with your own life? The key question is; which of these areas can be managed in a smarter and timelier manner?

Recent Recommendations

Recent recommendations are split into three distinct areas: ‘eliminating unnecessary workload around planning and teaching resources’, ‘eliminating unnecessary workload around marking’ and ‘eliminating unnecessary workload associated with data management’.

The choice of the word ‘eliminating’ is interesting in itself and one that deserves some quiet reflection.  Key to these reports is that all three areas are pertinent to any teacher, at any point in their career, and should therefore be discussed by all. As all three areas have a direct correlation to the day to day work of any teacher, they are by their nature highly emotive issues.

The recommendations from the reports, on the other hand, are very objective and absolve themselves from this personal, emotional element. Perhaps this indeed is necessary for everyone to do if a suitable path forward within the context of each unique setting is to be trod. It is necessary for all leaders and teachers to take a step back and separate what they do and feel comfortable and secure in doing as it is familiar, regardless the effectiveness and time commitment, with what actually has a measurable impact on pupil progress. The simple fact being, regardless of how ‘comfortable’ we may feel with a particular way of working, if it does not have a positive impact on pupil progress, then what is the point?

So I wanted to look more closely at the three reports into excessive workload that have been published by the government…

Eliminating Unnecessary Workload around Planning and Teaching Resources

Planning and Resourcing: The Challenge

“If the curriculum is the central driving force of teaching, then time spent planning should not be wasted time. Lesson plans should be given the proportionate status they merit, and no more, to lessen teacher workload. By working together, drawing on available evidence about ‘what works’, teachers can increase their joint knowledge of a subject and of the best way to teach it.”

Undoubtedly, as the report highlights, planning is essential to good quality teaching and learning. School leaders must address with teachers the notion that a ‘well planned lesson’ on paper leads directly to a well taught lesson in which the pupils make progress. Essential to the planning process is not the writing of endless detailed instructions or sets of key questions, but the actual discussion between colleagues and the thought process behind the plan. So long as the paper plan is an adequate summary of this and can act as a tool to support the teacher in delivering the lesson discussed or better still adapting it in the moment as necessary, then that is time well spent.

Similarly, hours spent resourcing a lesson does not guarantee good quality learning. Over resourcing or resourcing every lesson in the same manner, for instance with yet another PowerPoint or yet another worksheet, does not result in a varied or engaging diet for our learners. Often lesson with fewer resources and a greater level of face to face interaction are of a much higher quality.

School leaders should promote this belief and teachers must step back and believe in their own ability to deliver high quality lessons rather than taking comfort in overly detailed plans and endless resources.  Planning and resourcing, whether supported by a bought in scheme, a scheme created by a school or no scheme, should be about the quality discussion and thought, based on knowledge of the pupils and the setting, between professionals. High quality teaching and learning experiences are borne out of this dialogue and not out of hours spent producing endless piles of paper.

All stakeholders must look carefully at recommendations in the workload report and make changes appropriate to the context of their school. Middle leaders are in a unique position; middle leaders can directly influence and change attitudes and approaches to planning and resourcing lessons. As a middle leader you should model the ideal and be honest if that means taking a leap of faith and stepping back from endless detail or over resourcing for security. It is only through modeling openly a change of practice and discussing personal reactions and pupil impact, that positive change regarding workload can occur.

Eliminating Unnecessary Workload around Marking

Marking: The Challenge

“If your current approach is unmanageable or disproportionate, stop it and adopt an approach that considers exactly what the marking needs to achieve for pupils. The impact on teacher workload must be taken into account when reviewing, developing and following marking practice and school assessment policies.”

Marking is a seemingly endless task faced by all teachers. In my own experience as a middle leader I know teachers who report to loving marking because they “enjoy seeing the progress the children are making and giving them personalised advice as to what next,” Through to those teachers who detest marking and the sight of thirty books brings a sense of looming despair. I understand both points of view but do firmly believe that if approached effectively, marking can be rewarding for the teacher and the pupils.

Effective verbal and written feedback, according to the Education Endowment Fund, “is integral to effective teaching…gathering feedback on how well pupils have learned something, is important in enabling teachers to clear up any misunderstanding and provide the right level of challenge in future lessons.” Marking is not simply an unavoidable task, it is essential to effective teaching. Indeed feedback and meta-cognition, according to Education Endowment Fund research, tie in having the lowest cost but the greatest impact on pupil progress. Therefore, if school leaders can get approaches to marking right, then written or verbal marking can prove one of the most effective teaching and learning tools for all.

The report states clearly that marking should be, “meaningful, manageable and motivating.” Indeed it should be all three things for both pupils and teachers. In light of this and recent trends in ‘deep marking’, it would seem advisable for schools to identify effective practice within their own or other similar settings. This could involve identifying how long marking is really taking teachers – honest responses would need to be encouraged as a school needs to identify the extent of the workload. Also, discussion with pupils as to which marking they find most meaning, manageable (let us not forget that too much marking is also overwhelming for pupils) and motivating. Followed by an openness to investigating, trying and to evaluating the impact on pupils and teachers of any new approaches adopted.

Middle leaders are in a unique position as they spend a good deal of time teaching and marking within the parameters of the current policy of their school. Thus they understand both the workload implications of current policy and see the impact on pupil progress. The voice of middle leaders should therefore be sought be senior leaders. Similarly, if a school is to try new approaches to marking, it is middle leaders who will need to ensure this approach is being effectively adopted and given careful consideration by teachers on a day to day basis. Middle leaders are able to fully understand and give voice to everyday marking experiences of classroom teacher, thereby enabling senior leaders to develop a secure understanding of current practice in their school. Middle leaders are also able to drive change within their team, phase or department.

Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Associated with Data Management

Data: The Challenge

“The principles offered in this report are intended to redress a balance: to ensure that only data that is necessary is collected, that the processes used are efficient, and that the power of data is given its proper place in making professional judgements throughout the system and, in doing so, reduce the burdens on teachers.”

The report cited some 56% of respondents to the DfE Workload Challenge survey as identifying data management as causing an unnecessary workload, a burden on already hard stretched teaching staff. Data has become part and parcel of life in school. It is synonymous with accountability at teacher, year group, department or phase and whole school level. Data is used as a measure of a school’s success both for those within the school and for those looking at the school from the outside. With such pressures it is easy to forget that data should be useful and informative for those using it and that data collection and analysis should directly impact measures put in place to support and enhance pupil progress. The core business of a school and data management should go hand in hand.

The report makes it clear that, when collecting data, school leaders have a duty to consider, and teachers a  responsibility to know or find out, why data is being collected, how it will be used and how this will benefit pupil outcomes. The process by which it is collected must be efficient with data only being collected once but used in multiple ways and the data itself must be accurate. Teachers have a duty to ensure that this data is reliable and accurate.

A middle leader must also ensure those within their team understand the many forms that data collection may take from formative lesson to lesson assessment  by all working within a classroom, through to summative assessment in its many internally marked and moderated and externally marked formats.  The current climate, in which schools are investing precious time and thought into assessment without levels, is an ideal opportunity for school’s to have this discussion. Significantly, it is a discussion in which everyone’s voice whether NQT or an experienced teacher of twenty years should be heard. After all, everyone has a responsibility for ensuring pupils make at least good progress and understanding and using data strategically is a significant of this puzzle.

A final thought...

The three ‘eliminating unnecessary workload’ reports from the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group should be read by all within schools and their recommendations considered and discussed by all. Every teacher is affected by workload, every teacher strives endlessly to achieve work-life balance and every teacher wants the best for their pupils. Just as every leader wants the best for their pupils and their staff. The reports should be a platform for each school to openly discuss workload and ways forward within their context and the parameters of their setting, as opposed to workload being ‘the elephant in the room’.

 All stakeholders have a duty to reduce teacher workload to a reasonable level so individuals can achieve what they believe to be a healthy work life balance. Workload should not inhibit teachers at any stage of their career from thriving. Workload should not inhibit school leaders from inspiring their staff to develop, continue in the profession and become the future leaders. Workload should not inhibit teachers’ ability to inspire, encourage and skilfully facilitate young people’s learning to enable them to achieve their potential. Workload is an issue which cannot be ignored as its impact is far reaching for the present wellbeing of staff, future success of pupils and the preparedness of pupils when entering the world of work. A teacher overwhelmed by an unreasonable and unnecessarily high workload cannot fully realise their own potential and in turn neither can their pupils.


Lara Ginn  is a middle leader at a primary school in central Slough. She’s mentored NQTs, successfully completed her NPQML and developed a ‘Teaching and Learning Team,’ which is responsible for utilising mentoring and coaching to raise the quality of teaching and learning within her school. She’s also responsible for leading seven classes in the new role of Upper School Phase Manager. Every day, at least once, Lara is reminded that being a middle leader places her in a unique position; one in which she can make a real difference to the children, families and colleagues with whom she works. Lara is a member of NAHT edge's advisory council.



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