DfE apologises to teachers over workload and stress. Kind of.

07 February 2015 by Rob Webster

On Friday, the Department for Education announced findings from its Workload Challenge and a 'new deal' to tackle the causes of teachers’ stress and excessive working hours.

The DfE received 44,000 responses from teachers who managed to find time between data-entry, admin, planning, marking and attending meetings (not to teaching) to inform the Secretary of State for Education that the relentless introduction of policies and initiatives – and the constant changing of policies and initiatives – emanating from her department (but mainly introduced by her predecessor) were the primary cause of their excessive workload and stress.

In an ironic twist, the Workload Challenge gave DfE officials a workload challenge of their own. So inundated were they with responses, that only a 10% sample was selected for analysis – and this task was outsourced to an independent research company. (Though the DfE’s report fails to mention the name of the organisation that had this honour).

The DfE’s response is conspicuously light on practical action. Previously leaked plans for an ‘implementation lab’ to pilot new policies with schools and a recommendation to ensure school governors monitor teachers’ working conditions have both failed to make the final edit.

The proposals, announced by Nicky Morgan and Nick Clegg, seem mainly to concern no longer doing unhelpful and disruptive things like introducing seismic changes to the inspection process and reforming qualifications or curricula part way through the school year. Plans for minimum lead times for big policy changes is a common-sense recommendation too; as is a commitment to engage with the profession on the implications for workload.

It seems that’s as close to an apology as teachers are going to get from the Coalition for its pell-mell approach to policymaking and implementation over the last five years.

In the early 2000s, when workload last had a significantly destabilising effect on teacher retention and recruitment, the-then Government's answer was to encourage schools to employ and deploy support staff in numbers that would be unthinkable in the current climate. Unsurprisingly, with a possible 10% cut to school funding on the cards, the response this time around is not resources, but a pledge: an assurance that in future, policymaking will be more thoughtful and considerate and better paced.

Yet it will be with some unease that teachers will note that the new workload ‘reforms’ come just three days after Ofsted (another chief contributor to stress and workload) set out “some of the most significant changes to the inspection of education in its history”. It’s precisely this kind of disjuncture among education policymakers that was writ large in teachers’ submissions to the DfE’s consultation. Where, they ask, is the joined-up thinking and the internal logic?

The new workload proposals do nothing, it seems, to guard against less policy or ‘lower stakes’ policy. One only has to look at the Tory’s new goals (also announced in the same busy week) to see that the relentless pressure on schools to raise standards will be ramped up to virtually unachievable levels, if they form the next government. And the ‘new deal’ will only be realised if this happens.

Labour have yet to reveal their policy ideas; though so far, ‘teacher quality’ has been the consistent line. Ultimately, it’ll be policy’s plausible potential for improving pupil outcomes that will attract teachers’ support – not structural changes of dubious value or unrealistic drives to shoot the UK up international league tables. 

An attractive offer would surely include a substantial investment in training and CPD. But minimally, teachers would settle for a post-election moratorium on policy; as would those working elsewhere in the public sector – not least Britain’s biggest employer, the NHS. 

But can political candidates win votes from the rest of the electorate with a ‘no policy’ policy? That’s a different challenge altogether.