Workload: Solutions Part I

In my previous post of this series, I explained why high workload is not only damaging to a teacher and his pupils in a given year – for it forces him to spread his limited resources thinly – but is also damaging to his longevity in the profession. I expressed that a framework of ethical leadership demands a sense of urgency to prioritise implementing sensible solutions to reduce workload.

In this post, I begin to outline some key principles that can be used to underpin the reduction of workload, and give clear examples of these principles in action. In short they can be summarised in three Cs: centralise (this post), cut & culture (next post).


There is so much duplication of effort within (and between) schools, that identifying & eliminating such unnecessary efforts is an obvious and sensible place to start. There are two major time-consuming tasks that eat away at teacher time which could easily be centralised. What’s even more remarkable, is that the most promising outcome of centralising these two tasks isn’t even the reduction in workload, but the significant impact it can have on pupil outcomes directly. By this definition, centralisation *is* the silver bullet in education in my opinion. The two tasks in question are:

  • Resourcing for the curriculum
  • Behaviour management

Centralise all curriculum resources

Things that increase efforts and should be centralised:

  1. Teachers in a single department planning the same lesson separately
  2. Teachers in a single department extensively modifying the same lesson planned centrally
  3. Teachers sending the same resources to print separately

Imagine teaching Year 8 a unit on the respiratory system. The thinking that needs to go into deciding the content (e.g. how much detail to go into the anatomy – should I include the pharynx, larynx and epiglottis?), reviewing and linking to prior knowledge (respiration, diffusion, digestion, muscles), exploring a particular theme throughout the unit (structure-function & building an understanding of links to respiration), and planning for misconceptions (e.g. difference between breathing and respiration). This is the sort of thinking that teachers are brilliant at doing. But can teachers do this for all of their lessons all of the time? Ideally, this thinking needs to be front-loaded before any teaching in this sequence takes place. If teachers are left on their own to plan their lessons, how many will be allocated sufficient time to think through each of these and build these into lessons? Is it realistic to achieve this to the highest quality when science teachers are often teaching more than 20 unique lessons per week?

Beyond issues of time constraints, surely it is far more efficient, beneficial to pupils and valuable to the development of all teachers to contribute collectively to this process?

The dream: resources are centrally planned in advance of teaching. Imagine teachers meeting regularly to discuss these resources, having lots of time saved from resourcing separately, to come together to plan questions, identify misconceptions, reflect on lessons & develop subject knowledge day-in-day-out?

The common arguments I have heard against this are:

‘But teachers will get lazy if someone else has created all the resources – they’ll walk into lessons without having given the lessons much thought’

I have several rebuttals:

  1. That’s very mistrusting of teachers.
  2. If you believe teachers will not invest time to plan lessons, ask why? Is workload so high that teachers – who want to do the best for their classes – are taking shortcuts? What other things are eating up their time, that they’d rather not spend time planning lessons?
  3. What culture has been created in the department and school around planning? What expectations are set for the amount of thought that needs to be given to lessons? Is it prioritised over other admin tasks to clearly signal to staff: we value planning great lessons above everything else.
  4. It seems as if the ‘lazy teacher’ argument assumes that if this teacher plans his/her own lessons, it will reap better pupil outcomes than if someone else creates the resources. The truth is, the benefits of creating guaranteed high-quality, renewable resources outweigh other costs. Would you rather a teacher who is strapped short of time, download TES lessons the night before, or uses well-thought out resources?

‘But teachers know their classes best. They should plan lessons for their own classes.’

I have several rebuttals.

  1. Pupils are less unique than you think. Cognitively speaking, all pupils learn in ways more similar than different. Their preferences about content etc. may differ, but I hope you are not suggesting that we change our curriculum to *engage* our pupils. The content itself is engaging enough. My subject is awesome. I, the subject expert, will decide content.
  2. Centralised resources do not mean the same lesson is being taught in each classroom. Teachers are still uniquely delivering the lesson. The pace, questioning and instructions given can and still meet the needs of pupils in each class. Planning resources and delivery are not one and the same.

Centralising detentions

Giving detentions is essential for teaching pupils that rule-breaking has a consequence, and this is part of learning self-discipline. Three properties of detentions make them effective tools to eliminate undesirable behaviour: their unpleasantness (taking something away from pupils – their time), their certainty (if I do X, I know for sure that I will have to sit a detention), and their immediecy (thus clearly linking the behaviour to the sanction).

Here is why detentions can increase workload:

  1. Teachers have to give their time to run detentions;
  2. Teachers have to call home to get permission to keep pupils behind;
  3. Teachers have to follow up pupils who did not attend the detention (call home again, and run another detention).

Most teachers have experienced feeling very short of time with regards to holding detentions and, in particular, chasing up behaviour. As soon as time starts to squeeze teachers, game theory predicts that undesirable things may start to happen:

  1. Teachers decrease frequency of detentions to manage workload. This reduces immediacy of sanctions.
  2. Teachers let some behaviours slip, and give a telling-off instead of a detention. This means no real, consistent consequence for the pupil.

Both of these then prevent pupils from learning. Bad behaviour starts to escalate since the sanction is no longer certain; game theory applies from a pupil perspective too.

Centralised systems beat these constraints. If teachers know that there is someone dedicated to running detentions, and to sort out the admin, then they are much more likely to issue the detention in the first place – or so game theory would predict. If all a teacher needs to do is to communicate who broke what rule when, and nothing else, they are strongly incentivised to commit to this small action, even for the pupils who deviate in the slightest from the rules. This makes it significantly more likely that teachers enforce rules consistency; detentions are effective since they are guaranteed to be certain. Since centralisation allows daily detentions to be held, it guarantees their immediacy too.

Beyond this, the sheer amount of time saved would free teachers to utilise the expertise they were employed for: make the most of their subject knowledge and plan really effective delivery of (centrally-resourced!) lessons.

The common arguments I have heard against this are:

‘But pupils need to build relationships by having conversations with the teacher who’s lesson they misbehaved in.’

I have several rebuttals:

  1. The certainty and immediacy are more important to teach pupils rules, than the particular teacher that runs the detention.
  2. There is nothing stopping the teacher having a conversation with the pupil. It can be before, during or after the detention. The conversation and the detention do not need to occur simultaneously.
  3. When pupil behaviour becomes excellent because the detention system starts to become efficacious, relationships will improve.
  4. When teachers are less tired because their workload is more manageable, they will be more energetic and have time to invest in building relationships.

Rosalind Walker has blogged in far more detail about the merits of centralised detentions and how they have revolutionised her school.

So – reduce workload by centralising two of the biggest time-thiefs! Centralise resource-making and centralise detentions.

Next post, I discuss the second and third of the three Cs: cut and culture.




8 thoughts on “Workload: Solutions Part I

  1. Love this! Can I add to the resources thing: I always used to hate using other people’s lesson plans- still do in fact- I just found it too hard. I think this is because it was all about the activity rather than the knowledge. I’m completely happy using someone else’s resources eg sheet, questions and answers, textbooks, because it’s much less idiosyncratic. Knowledge rules!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Workload: solutions part II – why do systems in schools fail? | Bunsen Blue

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  5. Thank you! This makes so much sense!

    To add to the centralizing detentions part – I find that without it, quite often a student will believe that only that particular teacher has a problem with their actions, as oppose to it generally being against the values of the school. This then has the potential to become quite adversarial and personal, when surely the point is that it shouldn’t be personal!

    It’s an exaggerated comparison, but imagine if the same police officer that arrested someone then had to call their family to inform them, be the judge that passed the sentence on them and was then the prison officer supervising their sanction/punishment! How many offenders would not feel that that was personal?!!

    Liked by 3 people

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