There is no finer or better career to go into than education. Teaching is not a job, it’s a vocation, a way of life, a calling. Many jobs offer better financial rewards but there is no job quite like teaching that ticks the moral compass side of things. Influencing children’s lives is an absolute honour and pleasure and the ultimate reason that people head into education.
Yet we are in the middle of a crisis within the profession. Last year more teachers headed abroad than passed through the teacher training route. This means only one thing…a shortage of teachers and a strain on schools.
So, if teaching is such a fantastic career, why are we in the position that teachers are leaving the profession, or heading off to foreign lands to ply their trades? It really comes down to one main and unavoidable reason – workload. You see, there has never been a tougher time to work in education be it as a teacher, senior leader, deputy or headteacher. Whatever the role, the reality is that increased accountability, pressures on schools to achieve improved data, and a tougher curriculum all flow directly into one outlet – increased workload.
At Robin Hood Multi-Academy Trust we have been looking for some time at the issue of high workload among the teaching staff and the negative affects it has had on our culture and ethos. When you have a collective staff who are dedicated, talented and extremely hard working, the great downside can be that if you aren’t careful that team ethos and spirit within the group can begin to erode.
This isn’t because people don’t get on. It isn’t because people aren’t valued. Quite simply, as workload increases small things start to take hold; staff stop going to the staffroom, they eat their lunch in class while marking, they arrive earlier, stay later, have less free time in the evenings. This naturally begins to erode morale and the very fabric of the organisation.
It’s at times like these that new thinking is required. When thinking about workload, we looked at several key factors to determine how we could make a change to have a positive impact on staff. We considered:
- How do we ease workload without compromising standards?
- How do we maintain our ethos and culture?
- What elements of reduced workload would teachers value the most?
- How can we cut workload but increase the educational experience for our children?
- How can we consistently work towards reducing workload: one step at a time?
We thought long and hard about these questions and how we could improve the organisation as whole whilst recognising that in many ways the last 20 years have institutionalised us within the profession. Ofsted now don’t have an opinion on marking – they did. Ofsted now don’t judge lessons – boy, they did do in the past. When you’ve been working to such rigid systems as ever- changing Ofsted frameworks, behavior and actions become deeply engrained. Shifting the focus within an organisation takes time and careful planning.
Mindfulness and mental health
Our first steps along the workload journey have taken two phases. The first is beginning to tackle work-related pressures through mindfulness and mental health. We’ve been fortunate to partner with a number of universities in the West Midlands to tap into their expertise in this area. And we are also lucky to have one of our staff who is not only a teacher but in her previous job was an assistant psychologist. This has enabled us to deliver mindfulness and mental health training to the staff to help with their own well-being and also that of the students.
We are only at the start of the journey, but we have already created a mindfulness/mental health team of dedicated professionals across our schools who want to make a difference. Over the course of the next year we aim to ensure that the mental health of our pupils and staff remains at the forefront of what we do. By creating a dedicated team we are committing to driving change in this area.
‘No pen Friday’
The second phase for us was to look closely at workload and link this directly to staff morale. We sampled and tried a number of initiatives but in the end the one that we committed fully to was ‘No Pen Friday’ which takes place on the second Friday after the start of a new term and the penultimate Friday before the end of a term. We chose these Fridays carefully to ensure that they are at the right points during a half term to reduce stress and workload. During ‘no pen Friday’ we have an expectation on staff that they do not record any work in their books; we expect them to think outside of the box and create learning experiences for the children that tap into a different learning style and approach. We still expect staff to teach maths and English, and to deliver great lessons on these days. But we want them to think differently about how they take the learning to the children.
The benefits for the staff are that in not having to formally record the work, they do not have to mark and so, twice each half term, they have a greatly reduced workload. Naturally, as you can imagine, the children also gain hugely from the experience because they are able to learn in a different way and apply key skills in a more fluid manner. Make no mistake, we do not expect children to get an easy learning ride on these Fridays or that they are simply given tasks to mark time. We expect children to be inspired, motivated and to soak up new learning experiences.
After we considered the actual workload aspect of ‘No Pen Friday’ we then began to consider how we could use it to nurture team spirit and further develop our collective ethos and culture. Over the past two years we have seen the number of staff visiting the staffroom drop off hugely at lunchtimes and so, on ‘no pen Fridays’, we lay on a lunch for the staff. This is no gourmet banquet, but it is a lunch covered by the school that the staff don’t have to prepare or bring in. We simply insist that all staff spend their lunchtimes on ‘no pen Fridays’ in the staffroom socialising and getting to know their colleagues that little bit better. On these days the staffroom is a hub of activity and there is a buzz and energy about the school.
Enforced early closure
The final piece of the ‘no pen Friday’ jigsaw is that of an enforced closure time of the school. Staff within Robin Hood MAT are notorious for staying late so on these Fridays we’ve put in place a very basic rule: all staff are to vacate the premises by no later than 4pm. This is non-negotiable and means that for two Fridays a half term staff are guaranteed to get their weekend started that little bit earlier than normal.
The multi-academy trust has seen huge benefits with this initiative. Staff have more time for each other, children get to learn in a different way and the collective morale and spirit of the group is vastly improved. We would, however, be lying if we were to say that this incentive for staff hasn’t come without its challenges – some of which we simply could not have predicted.
One element that surprised us was that a proportion of the staff actually found ‘no pen Friday’ more stressful to plan for at the start than a normal day – because they had to think in a different way about how they would cater for the children and structure the day. This led to an initial period of anxiety for some people that we had to work through. For the first few cycles, we still had staff insisting that children recorded their learning in their books. It took a concerted team approach to ensure that staff thought differently about learning experiences for the children. Just because a child is not recording their learning in a book does not mean that they are not learning.
The final challenge that we encountered was in actually getting staff out of the door at 4pm. Some staff take a lot of comfort in getting their rooms set up for the next day of teaching and actually found this deadline more stressful. If we are honest, this is something we’ve had to be a little bit flexible over and on some occasions, even though it is a non-negotiable, we’ve had to compromise and put the time back to 4:30pm for the odd individual or two. After all, our aim is to reduce their stress and not add to it!
Improving staff workload and reducing stress is an ongoing issue across schools and needs a long term, nationwide strategy. At Robin Hood we cannot claim that we are where we want to be, yet, but we are making an effort to step in the right direction and make changes that have a positive impact n staff. After all, as Mother Teresa once said, ’I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.’
The more schools work to tackle these issues together, the greater our chance of invoking meaningful and long-lasting change.