Workload: solutions part II – why do systems in schools fail?

Systems in schools often fail for two reasons. Firstly, the workload-to-impact ratio is unfavourable. Secondly, the culture in the school hasn’t united staff to pick fruits from trees growing in the same philosophical soil. Both of these contribute to an increased workload that can be diminished; the second and third of my three Cs of eliminating workload are cut and culture respectively. (The first c is centralising curriculum resources and detentions.)

Cut anything that has a low impact:high workload ratio

All leaders must ask themselves two questions before they roll out a new initiative/system, or when evaluating a current one:

  1. How much impact will this have on pupil progress?
  2. How much will this affect my staff in terms of workload?

On balance, the evaluation should be favoured if the workload-to-impact ratio is desirable.

As a scientist, I feel compelled to zoom in on the word ratio here. Some tasks have both high impact and high workload e.g. resourcing a curriculum. However, the high workload is justified by the impact (if resourced centrally). The practices that need to be eliminated are ones where the ratio is skewed. Joe Kirby, who has blogged more eloquently and has given this idea far more thought than I, speaks of ‘hornets’ that are ‘high workload, low impact’ efforts e.g. individual written feedback in books, and contrasts these to ‘butterflies’ that are ‘low workload, high impact’ ideas e.g. whole-class feedback. Leaders and teachers: be brave and cut out any bureaucracy.

But before you wield your hornet-slaying sword & proceed with cutting here and there – wherever you see a hornet – it is important to remember the final C – culture. This will help to sharpen your sword and to go directly to the hornet’s nest.

Culture – why do systems & policies often fail in schools?

Accountability, a desire to do better, a desire to make a mark, a response to an issue… a handful of motivations for the constant introduction and refinement of policies and systems in schools. However, it often feels like some policies and systems are reactive rather than pre-emptive. Sometimes there is no followthrough and consistency falls flat on its face. Sometimes different systems in the same organisation seem to contradict each other.

The springing up of doomed new ideas appears to go through distinct phases: enthusiastic adoption at first; the apparent dip in consistency of application to follow; its eventual fizzling as it transpires that the initial enthusiasm is for the novelty rather than for the thing itself. At other times the trajectory of an idea is more promising, albeit only for slightly longer, flying a touch further before joining the others on the dusty ground, rolling forward only when the gushes of SLT-generated wind remind everyone it’s still there. It will take more effort from all staff to give these ideas flight again.
Hello workload.

That new ideas often fail is down to culture & values. Every individual holds certain values and philosophical beliefs; the soil from which ideas – fruits – spring. Different soils favour the growth of different fruits. When we pick and eat fruit grown from the same soil as all of the other fruits we enjoy, it tastes very sweet and we can digest it just fine.

The problem arises when we try fruits from different fields, grown in different soils. They might seem tempting, and may even taste juicy and sweet. But after a while they’ll upset the stomach. If a school is unclear about its underlying values and philosophy, and it fails to unite its teachers under these ideas, then its leaders and teachers might pick fruits from any appealing tree they see and eat it. Staff will run with ideas that might seem to work at first, but will ultimately fail. They fail because there will not be true buy-in when it becomes apparent that the ideas are rooted in values that don’t agree with all teachers.

different soils

A clear example of this is the idea of teacher authority and pupil obedience linked to a detention system. Some people fundamentally believe that teachers are the authority and pupils should be obedient. Others vehemently disagree; pupils should be given a say in school rules, in directing their own learning and in how they go about correcting their behaviour etc. Now, imagine a school where the vast majority of teachers do not believe in this parity between pupils and teachers. Would a system of restorative justice work in such a school? Imagine teachers are told that detentions are a last resort, and that conversations between the teacher and the pupil must be held first. If there is a continued re-occurance of the behaviour, only then can the pupils be placed in a detention – would such a system make teachers and pupils feel supported? The result would be authority-believing teachers would get frustrated with the system and standards would begin to differ between teachers. Perhaps the sanctions would start to escalate more quickly for some teachers, whilst others would be reluctant to detain pupils. This will yield inconsistency, and the behaviour system would break down.

In contrast, would a school where most teachers believe the converse succeed in introducing a centralised detention system where any rule-breakers are automatically sanctioned with no second chance to correct their behaviour? Probably not. The teachers would increase their threshold of tolerance for behaviours that should be sanctioned in order to avoid giving detentions. The system would, again, break down.

The role of school leaders: agreeing on the soil & finding the hornet’s nest

In reality, most schools contain teachers who enjoy fruits grown on trees from very different soils; their values are different. What then? For a harmonious, consistent system to be set in place, leaders must create a culture where the values are discussed and teachers are brought together. This means a very open explanation, discussion and explicit communication of the values that underpin the school’s decision making. This needs to precede the introduction of a change, be it a new policy, system or decision. Then – and only then – will the policy, system or decision make sense to staff. After this, the staff will get it. There will be 100% buy-in. When staff are left to make decisions, they won’t reach out blindly from any tree that appears to be fruiting with tempting rewards. They will test the soil first. They will check its compatibility with the school’s values.

If leaders spend time discussing values and uniting staff in the principles form which new ideas will stem, the new ideas are far more likely to succeed. For example, if everyone agrees that teachers should not have to run themselves into the ground to offer pupils the best chance, then this will mean everyone can agree to look at new ideas from the lens of effort:impact ratio. It means that teachers themselves will reject any exciting, new, pedagogy that shows up because the effort is not worth the impact. Teachers will have a clear signal that they should make better decisions about their time. You will have equipped your staff with a sharp sword and you will attack the hornets at the nest: no more initiatives with a unfavourable workload:impact ratio will ever leave the slain nest.

This is what it means for a school to have a clear vision, to communicate this vision and have very clear channels for staff to voice their stances on the vision. What is needed is a clear set of values and underlying philosophy: “this is where we sit – do you agree?” For existing teachers, it means uniting a staff body and having open dialogue. This is akin to spreading fertiliser on your mutual field – the ideas that spring forth will succeed rapidly. This is also useful for making job advertisements unique – signal your values clearly to prospective teachers and you will stand out among the generic ads and you’ll attract the staff that suit your values.

4 thoughts on “Workload: solutions part II – why do systems in schools fail?

  1. Pingback: Writing Biology Mastery Textbooks | Bunsen Blue

  2. Pingback: Workload: Solutions Part I | Bunsen Blue

  3. Pingback: Designing a Science Curriculum: my #rEDRugby talk | Bunsen Blue

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