5 Workload Solutions

Reading time: 4
shutterstock_177516356 businesswoman with a key winder on her back sleeping on laptop


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

If the government cannot do it, how can schools address the workload crisis and seize control?

For almost two years, I have been ranting on about the Workload Challenge. I make no apologies for this. If the Department for Education proposals are to be fruitful, reform will be meaningless without any structural changes to national policy. This is yet to happen within their own department if they do not lead by example.

The  DfE must work with us, not tell us what to do.

Until strategies and systems are put in place, and although it is very easy to say “reduce teacher contact-ratio” as the ultimate solution for tackling workload, despite it being the most pragmatic approach to the problem, it is an unrealistic suggestion in our current climate of fair-funding and budget constraints.

Even worse at the time of writing with the ‘Leave’ vote for the EU referendum and the volatility of the £1 (sterling pound).

I am reminded of the three Workload Review Groups who published their findings in March 2016. That if schools apply suggested principles, workload would decrease, yet the DfE still fail to lead by example; recent catastrophes with key stage 1 and 2 assessments and exemplar materials being delayed have led to an increased workload for primary colleagues.

So, I’ve decided to grab the ‘bull-by-the-horns’ and offer 5 realistic and pragmatic solutions. We know common-sense ideologies work and many schools are taking workload into their own hands, but is this the case for your school?

Graded Observations

In 50% of schools where lesson gradings have been banished, teachers are also no longer required to produce or submit any form of lesson plans. Instead, an evidence base should incorporate a broad range of different types of documentation from the lesson observation to marking and classroom data to meeting the Teachers’ Standards.

Observation of classroom practice and other responsibilities is just one method of assessing performance, and yet, how many are carried out in a supportive fashion? In 2016/17 in the school which I work, we will eradicate formal observations altogether. The amount and type of observation will depend on the individual circumstances of the teacher and the overall needs of the school. It may be that some teachers are never formally observed, other than taking part in a voluntary coaching programme.

If teachers are good, they will be let alone to get on with the job and encouraged to share and participate in school professional development programmes.

Marking Policies

Streamlined policies and guidance to clarify expectations and frequency is essential for all schools and as recommend by the Marking Review Group, should be “based on what we know about marking rather than what we think we know”.

Teachers should not be wasting their time with marking gimmicks that do not have any impact on student progress. A perfect example of this is a ‘verbal feedback’ stamp for observer purposes.

Why not try this simple marking policy?

shutterstock_180026762 Hand Turns clockwork on the back of businessman. Concept to stimulate work

Image: Shutterstock

Examination Boards

Despite effective marking policies in schools, these will always be undermined by examination boards. We desire for all students to be working harder than the teacher, but how is this possible with recent reform and examination boards, demanding annotated marking for countless re-drafted documents to evidence a student’s journey and their decision-making?

If examination boards demand ‘evidence from a distance’, this will always contradict what OfSTED and schools are trying to do to reduce the burden of marking. Until marking requirements from examination boards are developed at a strategic level, sadly any sensible marking policy will have little or no impact if teachers are doing quite the opposite for public examinations.


Ofsted and the DfE for that matter do not fulfil their side of the bargain, but OfSTED are trying at least under the direction of Sean Hartford. Frequent ‘mythbuster publications’ help remind schools and teachers what is not required by OfSTED:

  • No more lesson plans.
  • No requirement to complete a set quantity of observations.
  • No more graded lesson observations. Hurrah!
  • No template for self-evaluation.
  • No particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books.

Hartford’s blogposts are also another gem, offering his musings on an emerging model to have peer-to-peer accountability within a hub-based model of experts supporting others in the local area to help new head teachers in their role, or for schools in need of support over a longer period of time following an unsavoury inspection.

You can read my open letter to Amanda Spielman: 5 Hopes for OfSTED.


This suggestion is very abstract and although easy to express in writing,  fundamentally it relies on consistency and collegiality. In schools where there is a strong culture of trust, teachers thrive.

“Schools are complex places. We can find ourselves too stretched to think, overworked and under-utilised, busy but not productive.” (Mary Myatt)

When this happens, we can take our eye off the big picture and allow the small details to eat away at our motivations. When this happens, trust begins to crack at the seams and colleagues start to bicker.

Trust is what holds teams together.

In a system of growing accountability, there is no scope for colleagues to undermine each other by sweeping issues under the carpet. Yet despite a desire for transparency and consistency, it is easy for any school teacher and senior leader to drop the ball. This is only made worse in a growing climate of fear, performance related pay and decreasing budgets.

shutterstock_390919771 Cartoon character, black businessman system wind up., vector eps10

Image: Shutterstock

“Sensible leaders understand that If we want to receive trust we have to trust people first. There is no other way, it does not work from the bottom up, it works from the top down.” (Mary Myatt)

Senior teachers have responsibility to model workload in all that they do.

School leaders must be mindful of their own request that impact on teachers whose heads are down, working day-in, day-out in the classroom. They must be aware that deadlines impact on busy teachers and less-so on themselves – and if leaders are to enable staff to work sensibly, they must set tasks that are achievable to complete within the normal working day. Give staff the trust and respect to complete the task to the best of their ability.

So, if the government cannot do it, how can schools address the workload crisis and seize control? Well, let’s start with a campaign for one teaching union.


@TeacherToolkit logo new book Vitruvian man TT



7 thoughts on “5 Workload Solutions

  1. Excellent Ross. If senior staff, Ofsted and DfE, and exam boards (how do these bodies actually arrive at their decisions?!) cannot demonstrate clearly – and model – reduced workload strategies then schools must act independently. Heads will get the point but be held directly to account so the idea of one union seems the most sensible but we are one hell of a broad church!

      1. Union leaders have vested interests (and that’s putting it mildly) and historically members do not tell them with sufficient unanimity, vigour or congruence exactly how they would like leaders to act. The CoT boat has sailed into re-think territory, if not permanently sunk, so what do you suggest? A moratorium period to field ideas or maybe a symposium? Either way, we cannot simply leave it to union leaders – they are mini-politicians and look what they have just accomplished!

        The idea has been around a long time but never seems to gain ground. I’ll be very interested to hear views!

  2. Ross, I don’t agree with your demonisation of exam boards. Recent reform means that in general there is less coursework so less ‘evidence from a distance’ and this will reduce workload. I also don’t think the reduction in workload was the driver behind these changes, rather the desire to improve reliability of assessment, so I’m not claiming Ofqual or the Awarding Bodies are heros. I do agree with your overall message, but I think you should be praising the reform for the improvement it should lead to rather than suggesting it is making the situation worse.

    1. I appreciate and acknowledge that exam board reforms have improved things. The problem that remains, is that some courses still require teachers to annotate scripts in details; others require version 1 and 2 of work to show students have re-drafted etc. Until these remaining issues are addressed, exam boards will always trump school marking procedures. I’m confident it will get better and should not be a generalisation for all awarding bodies.

      I also understand that exam boards need to impose certain things to ensure students can demonstrate work completed. 10 years ago, I was involved in eScape research which was years ahead of its time; it still is.

      The researchers devised an approach that enabled students to draw up their initial design ideas on a PDA, record the progress of their design and then take photographs of their finished work, before uploading their projects to a central website where they could be assessed by moderators. What was revolutionary about the idea – is that it required no marking.

      Once a piece of work is completed, it is automatically entered onto an e-portfolio, using a system known as Managed Assessment Portfolio System (MAPS). This work can then be looked at by a moderator anywhere in the country: “That won’t just rely on me marking my work for the kids, it will rely on someone else as well, and it makes it a bit more bullet-proof – there are fewer opportunities for error, and more collaboration.” Each assessor will see two example portfolios on their screen and make a judgement about which one is better: “So one will be selected online, and then the software will randomly select another project, and eventually you’ll have ranked the projects from top to bottom, and another person somewhere else in the country will look at the same sample, again completely randomly.”

      Once all the assessors have ranked the projects, an overall ranking of the projects emerges. In the pilot, each e-portfolio was judged at least 17 times by seven different judges, which makes for a highly reliable set of results.
      It was genius and remains to this day, a solution for project-based subjects – it may be harder to achieve it subjects such as maths and English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.