On Workload

Working at a laptop

Nobody has deliberately set out to increase workload. But increased it has. So what can senior leaders do to address the drivers for this and how can they find ways of cutting through anything which is not absolutely necessary? This chapter explores further the three main strands identified in the Government’s Workload Challenge, set out in the previous chapter: planning and resources, data management and marking.


First, to planning. It is essential for leaders to have conversations with colleagues about the difference between ‘lesson planning’ and ‘lesson plans’. Planning is critical and is fundamental in providing the structure and architecture for pupils’ learning. Results are better when the following apply: teachers are given time to plan together on a scheme. These should identify the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the content to be taught. Best practice in planning starts with an overarching question; ideas for opening up the content and the things to be taught over the medium term. These constitute the big picture and framework for what is to be taught.  They are the roadmap. This is a useful metaphor for thinking about the curriculum to be taught. A roadmap shows the destination, but provides a number of routes to get there. This allows for teachers’ autonomy in the delivery of the scheme as it unfolds, lesson by lesson. When good quality schemes of work are in place, they should reduce teacher workload.

The Department for Education’s workload review group on planning and resources[1] identified planning a sequence of lessons as more important than writing individual lesson plans. So what leaders could do to support this aspect of the workload challenge is to stop asking for detailed daily lesson plans, if that is current practice. The only situation where daily lesson plans might be an expectation is when senior leaders are supporting a colleague via coaching. Here, precise planning might be needed to improve practice, in which case the plans should be prepared jointly with the senior leader as coach, as part of the larger scheme of work.

The most compelling reason for moving away from compulsory daily lesson plans are that not only are they not necessary, they can get in the way of the bigger ‘flow’ of the sequence of learning. As leaders, this might appear risky. So, let’s be clear about why it might not be risky to do away with daily lesson plans. First of all, what do lesson plans tell senior leaders that they don’t already know? If they have an overview and indeed have had some input into some of the longer-term plans, they do not need a detailed lesson plan to tell them this. If they are honest, how many leaders read the individual lesson plans from every teacher? In a school with 10 teachers and five lessons a day that would be about 250 plans to check; with 100 teachers, 2 500 to check. Each week. Are any senior leaders doing this, seriously? And if they are, wouldn’t the time be better spent going in to the actual lessons to see how things are going? Not as lesson observations, or learning walks, but simply by walking about. And offering support if needed and affirmation for work well done. How much more powerful than reading all those plans, which often bear little relation to what is happening in the classroom.

Second, senior leaders might deem it too risky to do away with lesson plans because they believe that they might be needed for an inspection. Ofsted has made it clear that they do not expect to see lesson plans, only evidence of planning. This has been made clear in its guidance document, Ofsted inspection: myths.[2] Apart from anything else, time is so tight on an inspection that there wouldn’t be time to read files of lesson plans. The only thing which inspections comment on is impact – the impact of the delivery of curriculum plans on children’s learning. It would be technically possible to have perfect plans, which do not translate into meaningful practice for children in the classroom. And the danger of this is that it is possible to be seduced into thinking that the piece of paper is the work, when in fact it is the action in the classroom, which is the work.

Third, senior leaders might believe it is risky to stop insisting on lesson plans as they will have less control and view of quality assurance. But this is like a restaurant checking that all the orders have been placed so that dishes can be prepared. It suggests that the paperwork is more important than the meals that eventually end up in the restaurant. Any decent restaurant will check on the final product. And tweak it to make it better. Rather than thinking that the process stops at the ordering. So, for those leaders reluctant to let go of the safety net of lesson plans, they might want to trial it for half a term. Then check what difference it makes not having them. Those schools which have done this have found that the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom goes up, not down. It is a case of fewer things, done in greater depth.

Given the above, one of the recommendations in the ‘Report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review’ is that ‘senior leaders should consider the cost benefit of creating larger blocks of time for this practice to make the planning activity as productive as possible and reduce the amount of time spent by individual teachers on individual planning.’[3] As John Hattie says ‘planning can be done in many ways, but the most powerful is when teachers work together to develop plans, develop common understandings of what is worth teaching, collaborate on understanding their beliefs of challenge and progress, and work together to evaluate the impact of their planning on student outcome’.[4]

Data management

Now, to the workload related to collecting data in schools. This is the advice from the Report of the Workload Review Group on data management:  ‘leaders and teachers should challenge themselves on what data will be useful and for what purpose and then collect the minimum amount of data required to help them evaluate how they are doing.’ [5] The move away from levels should help with this. The advice from the NAHT and the DfE’s Commission on Assessment Without Levels report[6] is that key performance indicators are the most efficient way forward. In other words, schools should identify the key ideas and concepts which are taught, and whether pupils have understood and have grasped these. The vital word here is ‘key’: not every aspect of what is being taught, but the big concepts and ideas only. It is not possible to evidence everything, so schools should not be seduced into thinking that this is possible. The right sort of evidence tells a big story about what pupils are able to do. Emma Knights, in her chapter on governance, points out that these principles should also be welcomed and supported by governing boards.

Leaders should keep in mind that the most robust evidence of progress and attainment is what pupils produce and say about what they have learnt. This is why their work, including written work as well as how they articulate their learning, provide the best insights into how well they are doing. Some schools are using tools like SOLO taxonomy[7] to capture whether children’s learning is surface, deep or conceptual. Leaders need to hold in the forefront of their thinking that the data or information is a symbol for what pupils know, understand and can do. Any data collection is meaningless if this relationship is not made, checked and moderated. For example, an inspection team will ask school leaders how well pupils currently in the school are achieving. They will look at any system which the school is using to capture this. Then they will ask to see children’s work and to talk to children about their learning, to gauge whether the information or data collected is in line with what the children are saying and producing. The key question is: is the work done by children broadly at age related expectations? And if it is not, how are leaders and teachers using this information to close the gaps in learning?

One of the problems sometimes seen in schools is that investments are made in commercial tracking systems, which are very similar to old levels. They create a false impression of what pupils can actually do and in some cases they drive how the curriculum is delivered. This is completely the wrong way round. School leaders and teachers need to agree what is to be taught and then work out the simplest way of capturing this. Otherwise, commercial packages drive the learning, rather than the other way round. Some schools, like the Wroxham School[8] keep their tracking to the minimum. Instead, they have regular, high quality conversations with pupils and parents about what they are doing well and where they still need to develop. Pupils, in discussion with their teachers, identify key pieces of work which show what they are capable of. These are used to share with parents and anyone else who needs to know.

It helps everyone if there is a timetable for data or information collection, together with a rationale for its frequency. In this way, all those involved in its input and analysis are clear about what is expected of them and why.


And finally, to marking. The report of the workload review group on marking  acknowledges that ‘marking is a vital element of teaching, but when it is ineffective it can be demoralising and a waste of time for teachers and pupils alike.’[9] So the critical thing for leaders is to make sure that it is effective. What are the key principles which senior leaders need to consider here? First, that quality always trumps quantity. There is no link between the quantity of marking and pupils’ progress. At its worst, teachers write extensive comments on children’s work and children do nothing with the feedback provided. This is a complete and utter waste of time. Wise leaders are describing how marking fits into the bigger agenda of feedback. Feedback is information and advice, whether verbal or written, which improves a child’s learning. Leaders discuss with colleagues the purpose of high quality verbal feedback. And together they explore how powerful this can be. Then, they agree what high quality, purposeful written feedback looks like. This is linked closely to curriculum planning. In depth feedback might only be needed at the end of a significant piece of work, because most of the feedback will have been verbal and given in a number of lessons, leading up to a final piece of work. And they talk through why anyone would feel the need to have a verbal feedback stamp. Why would anyone use these? A waste of time and ink. And above all, they consider the main audience for the feedback. It is for the child, not the adult.

As a result, there should be no more cries of ‘should I be marking every piece of work?’ Why on earth would you, when most of it is redundant. So leaders’ role in this is to have some big conversations around a few simple themes: What would happen if we didn’t mark at all? If we are going to mark, who is the main beneficiary? How much of this should be done during the lesson? What would it look like if we limited marking to just a few pieces of work?

Tom Sherrington has written a very careful analysis of what high quality marking and feedback looks like[10]. The grid at the bottom of his blog post shows how teachers might do less, more effectively. While it is written with secondary colleagues in mind, it is a useful talking point for colleagues working in all phases. Joe Kirby has analysed marking which is maximum impact, minimum effort.[11] As identified above, much of this takes place during the classroom, because that is where the learning takes place. Feedback should be as close as possible to the action. And Dylan Wiliam has thought and written more than anyone else on what meaningful, effective feedback looks like.[12] Any of these would be very good starters for a discussion about marking less and doing it really, really well.

To summarise, in all these elements affecting the workload challenge, there is a simple line running through and it is this: fewer things, done in greater depth, produce better results. The job for senior leaders is to set aside the time, in professional development time and elsewhere, to begin the conversation.


Are there things that you do, or are required to do, (in marking, data management or lesson planning in particular) that seem pointless? Have you asked why they are done?

Can you point to a meaningful purpose, based on pupil learning, for the work that you do?


Emphasise quality, not quantity – in marking, planning and data management.





[4] Hattie J (2012) ‘Visible Learning for Teachers, Maximising Impact on Learning, pages 67-74.









Find the rest of ‘Managing Teacher Workload’ at


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