A lot’s been written recently about workload. Type the word into Twitter and you’ll be met with a whole host of blogs and tweets from mutinous teachers, pitchforks in hand, ready to bring down the practices that are taking up too much of their precious time.
For all the workload-busting initiatives, however, there’s still a rather large elephant in the room. I’m talking, of course, about data. Not just the kind determined by SATs at the end of each Key Stage, but the thousands of objectives being tracked and reported on in between.
There are organisations breaking new and exciting ground in the field of assessment, with techniques such as comparative judgement, but the actual reporting and tracking of data in most schools I’ve been in can often be one of the biggest contributors to workload and stress.
From NQTs to headteachers, the numbers in those spreadsheets can make or break careers. We’ve all experienced the fear data can induce, but rarely do we question what it is and how much we should trust it. For schools who are serious about reducing workload and teacher burnout, shining a light on their data practices should be their number one priority.
At one school, I was expected to make a judgement on 93 objectives for each child in reading, writing and maths alone. Not was this a ‘yes or no’ scenario – those 93 objectives had to be constantly revisited and turned green on the tracker Only when it had been highlighted three times could a child be deemed to have ‘got it’.
Highlighting all those objectives three times for 30 children meant that over one school year, I had to make more than 8,000 judgements on progress. How can schools possibly rely on the data they’re generating when the margin for error is so immense?
The numbers involved would be comical if they didn’t wield such power. In most schools, progress has been monetised by the introduction of performance-related pay. Each teacher, irrespective of the year group they teach, is expected to show linear progress for every child.
The importance of those shiny green cells in the spreadsheet can’t be overemphasised, but in many schools they amount to little more than an over-tired teacher madly clicking or highlighting at the end of the half term, often based on a gut feeling or the most recent lesson taught.
Each school will have a different lever for turning that cell green – sometimes tests, sometimes teacher judgement. How are those final judgements reached? With the stakes so high, is it possible that confirmation bias may be creeping into the process?
Here are five actions that school leaders could take tomorrow to improve the situation:
- Count how many judgements you’re asking each teacher to record and decide what constitutes ‘too much’
- Reduce this number by deciding which curriculum objectives don’t need to be reported
- Don’t ask teachers to revisit objectives on the tracker; make each choice a binary ‘can/can’t’
- Decide what ‘can’ means and rigorously ensure consistency
- Ask teachers which objectives children can do or which they can’t – asking both is a waste of time.
If we’re serious about tackling workload and increasing teacher retention rates, we must start with our towers of data.