Tackling teacher workload: should we ditch the data?

By Lesley Duff

Monday 12 November 2018

Teacher workload continues to be a hot topic of discussion following the publication of the Department for Education’s (DfE) Teacher Workload Advisory Group report. Commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, the report finds that teachers can suffer from anxiety and burnout because of an increasing expectation (or perceived expectation) that schools need to collect detailed pupil data for monitoring and accountability purposes.

NFER’s recently published report ‘Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England’ highlights the fact that unmanageable workload is consistently the most cited reason ex-teachers give for why they left the profession.  Our report recommends that the government and Ofsted continue to actively work together to review the impact their actions are having on the workload of all teachers, identify practical actions that reduce teachers’ unnecessary workload, and support school leaders’ efforts to do so.

The government’s commitment to removing “unnecessary” workload for teachers and leaders, so they can focus on teaching and their own development, is a good thing. Much of the new DfE report, which focuses on the workload generated by excessive data collection, echoes NFER’s research in this area. We welcome its recommendations : that the purpose and use of data needs to be clearly defined, that the frequency and collection of data should be proportionate and that school leaders need to review processes for data management to reduce workload.

We all support trying to reduce the workload burden on teachers.  However, the value and purpose of robust data, efficiently collected and properly analysed and used, should not be overlooked or discarded as unecessary workload.  When used appropriately, the right data is a crucial part of effective teaching and an important element of the accountability system.

So, why is robust data necessary?

Back in September, the NAHT Accountability Commission and NFER’s accompanying rapid literature review of accountability mechanisms used in other countries found that there is no “perfect” accountability system.  However, both reviews concluded that data has an important role to play.

Independent, objective and transparent measures of performance in key subjects enable standards to be monitored in a way that avoids subjective judgements. These measures give us a robust check on how schools and the system as a whole are performing, as well as highlighting areas where more support is needed.

Data also has an important role in informing teaching in the classroom, enabling teachers to identify children’s development areas and refine their teaching approaches. As echoed in the recent DfE report about continuing professional development, we need to increase teachers’ assessment literacy so that they can collect useful data and interpret it effectively to inform their teaching.

At NFER we are committed to helping teachers and those working in schools to grow their confidence in pupil assessment, so that assessment data can be used effectively as an integral part of teaching and learning. Our new Assessment Hub for practitioners offers free guides which advise on the range of assessment types and how to analyse data.

The publication of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group report is an important step towards tackling teacher workload, if its recommendations are adopted by government, Ofsted and school leaders themselves. Addressing workload is one of the key measures that will help to improve teacher retention.  However, collecting and using robust data effectively will also help to improve children’s outcomes.