Why is reducing teacher workload so hard?

By Kerry Martin, NFER Research Manager

Thursday 2 November 2023

Kerry Martin, NFER Research Manager

This blog post was first published in Schools Week on Wednesday 1 November 2023.

The government made workload reduction a priority in its 2019 Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy and has produced practical resources for schools such as the school workload reduction toolkit. In spite of this, high workload continues to be the main factor causing teachers to consider leaving the profession in England. In response, the Government also recently announced a new workload reduction taskforce to support their ambition to knock five hours from the current average of 48.7 hours per week for teachers within three years.

We have seen some improvement in reducing teacher workload in recent years, yet teacher working hours remain higher than their peers outside of teaching and this does not seem to be for want of effort from school leaders.

Our new study, commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and published today, finds that most schools are already using a wide range of approaches to tackle the problem, to the extent that there are very few strategies in the workload reduction toolkit that many schools have not already implemented.

Most commonly, this involves giving teachers at least the statutory time for planning and marking, providing access to existing schemes of work and lesson plans, using efficient methods of marking and feedback and encouraging collaborative lesson planning.

Although many schools are using technology and software solutions for a range of administrative tasks, we didn’t find much evidence that they’re using Artificial Intelligence (AI) for workload reduction, at least not yet. There is therefore some potential here, as identified by the secretary of state recently, and which the Government has backed this week with a £2 million investment in Oak National Academy.

In many ways, schools’ efforts are paying off. We found a positive connection between schools that have more workload reduction strategies and teachers’ views of their workload manageability, autonomy and job satisfaction. However, while many schools seem to be doing a great deal to reduce teacher workload, teachers told us some of the main drivers of workload come from outside the school – primarily from the Government and Ofsted – which they have little power to influence.

Teachers also said that workload pressures are being exacerbated by an increase in behavioural incidents and a decline in external support services available to schools (especially for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities). Perhaps unsurprisingly, schools identified insufficient funding/staff capacity as the top barrier to workload reduction.

The workload reduction taskforce will make recommendations to government, Ofsted and school and trust leaders in spring 2024. In developing their recommendations, we hope the taskforce members will consider some of the challenges highlighted in this research with regards to tackling this pernicious problem.

First, any new workload reduction interventions may in fact add to teacher workload, at least in the short term. This is because implementing new strategies takes time. Guidance on which strategies are more likely to be impactful would help schools prioritise and allocate their resources effectively.

Second, there are particular aspects of teachers’ work which they don’t want to give up. They consider these to be integral to the quality of teaching and learning. Key examples of this include the time teachers spend planning lessons and communicating with parents.

Finally, school leadership is key to setting the culture of making workload manageable. Teachers gave us examples of leaders either adding to or reducing the intensity of external workload pressures. They also mentioned the importance of flexibility for managing their work. Even small examples were appreciated, such as being allowed to do some administrative tasks at home or leaving school early to attend their own child’s sports day.

While the new taskforce gets stuck into these issues, we will continue to provide evidence on the areas of teachers’ work they would most like to see made more manageable. We encourage school leaders to make further inroads and keep an eye on promising developments in areas like AI, but tackling external pressures on schools so that teachers can focus on the job of teaching must be a government priority.