Wait, didn’t the DfE tell teachers to stop working themselves into the ground?

Posted on 2nd July 2016 by Joe
Pot of pencils on a desk

A couple of months ago, Nicky Morgan fully accepted the recommendations of three workload reports.  The full reports are very readable and can be found here; the TES provided this useful summary. So should we all expect a momentous lightening of teacher workload come September?

I’m going to outline why I think the recommendations are welcome, but explain how school leaders have not been given sufficient incentive or guarantees to take them on board.  I will also describe how at Happy Teacher, we’re trying to provide fresh incentive for the DfE and school leaders to reduce teacher workload and prioritise teacher wellbeing.

Marking – does yours meet the challenge?

Let’s focus mainly on the report into marking, since this is often at the top of teachers’ concerns.  Most of the report’s recommendations are eminently sensible.  They’re summarised by the slogan: “All marking should be meaningful, manageable, and motivating,” or “M&M&M’s” if you have a sweet tooth.   So those books you were asked to stay up late marking just to impress an observer?  They do not pass the M&M&M’s challenge.  Those essays of written feedback you gave your children that they didn’t have time to read? They do not pass the M&M&M’s challenge.  Yes, even if they were in the right coloured pen (more on this later).

The report echoes a common suspicion from any staffroom: that marking often serves a different purpose than genuine learning, and is written to “satisfy the requirements of other, mainly adult, audiences.”  It also directly confronts the hard-to-shake traditional view that a Trojan of a marker is actually a good teacher.  It sets out to debunk the “myth” that there is a link between the quantity of marking and pupil progress.  Both of these points will get a resounding “hear hear!” from classroom teachers.

However, they also pose puzzles to those monitoring teacher performance in schools: how can they do this without having ‘other adult audiences’ somewhere on the scene?  And if there really is no link between quantity of marking and pupil progress, should we just scrap all of our marking expectations, and embrace a brave new ‘anything goes’ world?

Deep marking

Where the report really goes to town is on the “excessive reliance” on labour intensive ‘deep-marking’ aka ‘triple-marking’ aka ‘dialogic marking’ aka ‘the only marking policy to be sponsored by Bic’.  So you know that test feedback you and your students worked slavishly on with 7 different coloured pens until it could rival a Kandinsky masterpiece?  That does not pass the M&M&M’s challenge.  And you hammering away 30 ‘VF for verbal feedback’ stamps in every class?  That does not pass the M&M&M’s challenge.

As someone who has indoctrinated my students fairly successfully, and increasingly painlessly, into the inherent differences between a purple and a green pen, I can’t help but ask: is it all bad?  Yes, yes, there is an arbitrariness in our choice of colour. But is it that bad to ask a student to actually read (or listen to) your guidance, and make some corrections?  And is it that bad if it’s a system which is easy for everyone – primarily the teacher and the student – to check?  Now, the report doesn’t say that deep marking is bad per se, but that excessive reliance on it leads to ineffective teaching, and that we should be wary of its “false comfort”.  Agreed.

So what do we replace it with?  The report proposes “an approach based on professional judgement.”  At first this sounds rather nebulous – whose judgement matters?  Who has the trump card of professional judgement?  The teacher?  The head of department?  The headteacher? Is it acceptable professional judgement that I will teach as Socrates and write not a single word down?  Indeed, this part of the report is more of a ‘To be continued…’ than a clear proposal of something which will dethrone deep marking.  But on reflection I think that an open, ‘many voices’ approach drawing on the professional judgement of teachers is promising.  And how do we do it justice?  Well, we listen to teachers – which I’ll return to below.

Data – who are we ‘gold-plating’ for?

Onto the next report, which is on data management.  The main thrust of this is that teachers should stop being encouraged to spend hours ‘gold-plating’ i.e. measuring everything, collecting everything, ‘evidencing’ everything – all just in case an inspector (whether the Ofsted variant, or the school’s attempted facsimile thereof) will pop in and ask for it.  The report’s same line applies here as to marking, issued with Humean boldness and brevity: “If the hours spent do not have the commensurate impact on pupil progress: stop it.”

This raises the question: who do we collect the evidence for?  The authors of these reports clearly don’t think all Ofsted inspectors are currently singing from the same hymn sheet, or at the very least that they’re not perceived to be.  Their tune was officially changed (I mean, clarified) in 2015 when Ofsted issued a statement which could be subtitled “We are not the bad guys you say we are.

So if Ofsted aren’t looking for the coloured pens and the gold-plated data, who is?  On the face of it, school leaders and heads of department are.  But I’m sure they would pass the buck back and say that ultimately Ofsted want to see something demonstrating good pupil progress and teacher impact, and these are the best models they have for doing so.   We operate in a system which places a high priority on accountability and evidencing, where there is a strong incentive to stick with defensive strategies such as deep-marking and gold-plating.  The same strategies which, when applied over-zealously, grind teachers down.

What we need are more counter incentives to reduce teacher workload and prioritise wellbeing.  As the report acknowledges, school leaders “must have the confidence to reject decisions that increase burdens for their staff for little dividend.”

A fresh incentive?

I think the vast majority of these recommendations are welcome, but that schools will differ hugely in how they respond to them.  Schools need more incentive ‘from the ground up’, from their own teaching staff, to make a positive change.  I agree with the NUT line that “Teachers will want the DfE’s acceptance of these reports to be followed by concrete and effective action,” but I don’t think school leaders should be waiting for the next Ofsted inspection or DfE investigation.  If we agree with the reports’ endorsement of professional judgement, and agree that teachers are on the whole well-placed to make this judgement, we should foster ways of turning up the volume on teacher voice.

The reports call for a “culture change on the ground as well”.  I believe it would be a great asset to teachers to be able to publicly and transparently comment on whether they think the practices at their particular school are manageable, or whether they feel over-burdened.  This would hold school leaders to account and give them a fresh incentive to look after the wellbeing of their staff.

This is why we’ve developed Happy Teacher to map wellbeing and job satisfaction of teachers in the UK, detailed originally in this article.   This will not be a cure-all for the myriad problems currently affecting education, but I truly believe that giving teachers more of a voice will empower us.  And there will be a greater incentive for schools to carry out the recommendations of these reports.

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Photo Credit: Martin Vorel