As I write this, I note that Dr Rebecca Allen’s Caroline Benn memorial speech on teacher workload has received 60 Retweets and 107 Likes on Twitter. If you haven’t read it, do. Even if you are overburdened with your own workload.
Citing DiMaggio and Powell, Allen explains the isomorphic pressures which have resulted in schools becoming more alike, and how this has contributed to increased expectations on teachers. She points two fingers: one at reforms of Ofsted; the other at increased school funding under Labour. These are classic cases of unintended consequences, for I recall the little cheers we uttered when we heard the inspectors would come in smaller teams, and when we realized for once that we had a government that believed in investing in public services.
What went wrong?
Smaller teams and shorter notice meant that headteachers became a sort of chief inspector-in-residence. Schools engaged in continuous self-evaluation, so that they would be in a permanent state of Ofsted readiness. Heads looked across their boroughs at other schools to see how they had survived inspection, and concluded that they must do the same. They already had data on summative outcomes for pupils, and they already had a box full of policies, but – when asked to describe the quality of teaching and learning – how could they do that? They did what we often do when stuck for an answer for quality: they reached for quantity. They increased the frequency of data drops, the amount of marking, the numbers of boxes to be ticked on a lesson plan. They did this (I stress), not because they were bad people, but because they were good people being asked to do something they could not do. How many outstanding teachers do you have? What is the proportion of outstanding lessons taught in your school? These are Alice in Wonderland questions, particularly when we agree that we have not agreed on what outstanding actually is.
If ‘small Ofsted / big SEF’ was the cause of the change, a rapid increase in schools’ spending was the means, says Allen. Leadership teams mushroomed, and rather than let their hands be idle they were put to work on gathering, sifting and analysing all this data, inventing interventions and trackers to shift the data, and creating performance management systems to hold staff to account for the data they had themselves fed in. This part of Allen’s speech makes for uncomfortable reading for some of us: this is the part that Ofsted did not force on us, the part we (i.e. those of us who were SLT) inflicted on ourselves (i.e. those of us teaching the lessons). How often did I demand information from colleagues in a certain format, by a strict deadline, for a purpose clear only to myself? How often did I conduct learning walks from which I learned little, and after which I shared even less? How many weights did I add to the wrong side of the work/life scales?
I don’t think Allen mentioned it, but I would point a finger at a third culprit here: analytics technology. We can now know how many homeworks the music teacher set last term, and at what point in the week year 11 students are more likely to access it online. We can now identify eight different types of disruptive behavior, and say which ones are favoured by the white boys, or the Greek girls, or the summer-born. We can now measure the rate of progress of every child, in every year, in every subject at any point in time. We can because, as with the Six Million Dollar Man, ‘we have the technology’. And, because we can, we must. And, because we do, we also have to do something with all the data we collect. We have to address the underperformance of the music teacher not setting the right amount of homework, and of all of those teachers (that is all of them) who have students not making the progress the flight path demands. We have to – we tell ourselves – because, if we have this knowledge and do nothing about it, we are letting down the students, the school and the profession.
We can rebuild it. Allen makes her own important suggestions about slowing the rate of curriculum change and rethinking teacher contracts. I make my own. With Amanda Spielman in charge, Ofsted have made many encouraging noises about investigating the consequences of their existence – the messages they communicate to schools about the sorts of things they ought to prioritise, for example. Justine Greening at the DfE has published excellent guidance on increasing flexible working. These follow reports and the poster on reducing teacher workload. I cannot fault this messaging, and I note also that the Department is tendering for bids through the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund to address workload. They recognise the problem, but I am not sure they yet recognise the causes of the problem. These are undoubtedly the twin devils of external and internal accountability. We can address the inadvertent pressures school leaders apply to their staffs, and we can congratulate those who are ‘brave’ enough to run their schools as if Ofsted were not there. But, so long as Ofsted is there, there is a limit to how far that courage can take us. I doubt we will ever arrive at the day when the top line of an inspection report reads: ‘This is a great school because it ignores everything we say.’ School leaders do load too much on the backs of teachers, but they do so because of the load which is on them. Ofsted, were it to follow its own logic, would not just stop grading individual lessons: they would stop grading schools. Then, perhaps, schools could get back to the business for which they were built.