How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time

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20 November 2015 by Nansi Ellis
The workload elephant has always been with us, but it just seems to keep growing, and it’s increasingly out of control.

It’s time to stop. ATL’s It's about time campaign is about helping the profession to take those bites out of the workload elephant.

Reading your responses to our workload survey has been a staggering and sobering experience. 80% of those who responded said that their workload wasn’t manageable.

But even those who said it was manageable said it wasn’t reasonable. You manage by working late and at weekends, by sacrificing family life, social life or even health. And any additional events such as parents’ evenings, writing reports or discussing a child’s behaviour with the SEN teacher just push it over the edge.

In my book, that’s not manageable.

This week marks a year since the end of the national workload survey: a year on, the Westminster government’s response has been slow, invisible to the profession and somewhat undermined by the massive changes underway around curriculum, assessment and qualifications which come from policies developed a few years ago.

ATL is pleased to be part of the working groups on data management, marking and planning and resources, which will provide recommendations to the Secretary of State in spring 2016, and we also meet regularly with government to address bigger issues around the impact of their policies. But it’s not enough.

So what’s the real problem here? If you work in education, you expect to be busy. There’s always more you can do, to improve your impact on pupils’ learning; you never quite feel you’ve finished.

What is most staggering about many of your responses is that this workload elephant is made up of ludicrous amounts of ‘busy work’. Marking every piece of work in different coloured pens (pink for think, anyone?); having written dialogue in every pupil’s book, which is sometimes longer than the piece of work itself; lesson plans written out for every lesson, after collecting resources and putting together the powerpoint you’ll actually use in the lesson; meetings which are hour long lectures about issues that don’t concern you, or which have no agenda and no useful actions.

How have we come to this point? You mark every piece of work because you believe Ofsted will penalise you if you don’t; you write out your lesson plans, and collect excessive evidence for your performance management because school leaders have no training in how to identify what’s working well in your lessons.

The problem with this elephant is that while it’s made up of bite-sized pieces, it’s being driven by a reckless accountability system that’s making it almost impossible to stop. So far, we’ve focussed on the driver, trying to change the accountability system and bring the elephant under control.

But, with apologies to the elephant, I think we can hack bits off it and slow it down at the same time – and that’s the intention of ATL’s worklife campaign.

Our survey found that eight out of ten drivers of workload could be managed at workplace level. Workplace by workplace we need to bite off the pieces that we can: we need to


  • work collaboratively to find ways to share information that don’t take hours of meetings every week
  • share lesson planning so that it becomes a thoughtful process rather than a meaningless product
  • help school leaders find ways of quality assuring the feedback teachers give to pupils without having to see colourful evidence in every book.

And at the same time, we need to work with the government to change inspection to reflect ATL’s vision, to stop the incessant changes to curriculum, assessment and qualifications, and to provide good quality professional development that supports school leaders to focus on the right things.

Let's be honest though. Nobody can eat a whole elephant on their own. We need to do this together.

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Workload and hours