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Part 2. School Leaders: Trust Your Teachers

School and college leaders need to place more trust in teachers: in planning, data collection and analysis, marking, and in how they monitor and support staff. Too much auditing, surveillance and scrutiny are driving good teachers from the profession.

In one of my earlier books, Live Feedback, here, I argued that brave and visionary leaders place greater trust in teachers and support staff despite the outside pressures coming from Ofsted and league tables. Such leaders know that governments have introduced a range on initiatives in a bid to raise levels of achievement and close the attainment gap, and that unfortunately most of them have failed.

Allen and Sims (here) pose a simple question: ‘How can this have happened?’ Their answer is strangely familiar:

Policymakers have been looking in the wrong place.

The focus should be, they argue, on the recruitment and retention of teachers and the development of great teaching, which numerous studies show has the biggest impact on learning outcomes. However, the reality is different.

In recent years, however, a cocktail of box-ticking demands, ceaseless curriculum reform, disruptive reorganisations and an audit culture that requires teachers to document their every move, have left the profession deskilled and demoralised. Instead of rolling out the red carpet for teachers, we have been pulling it from under their feet.

Teacher retention, as a result of such a culture, has become a major challenge. Allen and Sims make this point so starkly:

…around 40 per cent of those who spend several thousand pounds and two years of their life to train as teachers are no longer working in publicly funded schools five years later. (Allen and Sims, 2018, p5)

Research from the DfE (here) and organisations such as Teacher Tapp (here) consistently find four issues driving teachers from the profession, most of them are related to workload:

  1. Planning lessons

  2. Collecting and analysing data

  3. Marking

  4. Lack of trust, constant surveillance, and scrutiny

1. Lesson planning

In some schools lesson planning templates are used and all teachers have to complete them for each lesson (or week in primaries). Some leadership teams demand copies for scrutiny and approval, and in the worst cases discovered in the research, staff are instructed to amend them as a result. In one of the surveys this response was given from a young teacher who explained what she has to do each week:

Weekly planning … with learning objectives and success criteria for every area of submission to head of year, due in Saturday 5 p.m. Feedback given on Sunday evening with suggestions for ‘even better if’. This takes all day on a Saturday – so I have no weekend... I find it demoralising and soul destroying that my class is outstanding and yet this gives the impression of lack of trust. (Classroom teacher, primary)

The detail that is expected from some leadership teams is overwhelming. The DfE survey included this response:

…including annotated seating plans for each class and justifying their decisions made for these; having to change and revisit plans during the course of a week as lessons have developed; teachers having to spend a lot of time preparing to teach lessons in subject areas that they are not trained to teach in, or lessons that require cover at short notice.

In secondary schools, some leadership teams expect their teachers to construct annotated seating plans for each of their classes. In 2016 the workload reports used the phrase ‘’proxy evidence for accountability’ when referring to preparing information for outsiders. Good teachers will have a seating plan, but they should not have to prepare copies for each class for visitors. This is scrutiny gone mad. A seating plan is for the benefit of teachers and learners, not third parties.

Moreover in lesson planning, some templates are so inflexible, demanding fixed steps e.g. starter, introduction phase, deeper learning, plenary. Such templates assume each lesson is self-contained, ignoring the advice from the DfE workload groups that planning a series of lessons is more fruitful. Often, this type of planning is done by individuals, not teams, and the workload is immense. This does not have to happen. If leaders are insisting upon such planning and are scrutinising the results, it is their decision, not the fault of Ofsted who no longer ask to see lesson plans.

Two issues need highlighting here. Firstly, the new Ofsted framework highlights the importance of knowledge, and recent social media reports suggest that inspectors are interrogating teachers about sequencing and how they re-visit knowledge in line with the evidence from cognitive science on retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving. If reports are accurate, they are also quizzing students about what they remember. My fear is that some leaders will respond to this with new demands on lesson planning which will expect teachers to show how curriculum sequencing and retrieval practice are being managed.

Secondly, in an attempt to address the retention issues, particularly for Early Career Teachers (ECTs), The DfE introduced a new Early Career Framework (ECF) which is designed to improve the training and support new teachers get during their induction into teaching. A survey by one of the professional associations, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) concluded:

The survey, of more than 1,000 school leaders in England, reveals that, although there is a fair amount of support for the new two-year induction period, there are serious concerns about the new workload it is driving and a worrying risk that this might increase rather than decrease the number of teachers dropping out. (NAHT press release 16 December, 2021)

The NAHT also reported that 81% of mentors, crucial to the success of the new framework, indicated that their workload has ‘significantly increased’, with 28% wanting to give up the role. It is worrying that the DfE, having taken note of the findings of the workload groups in 2016, and having asked Ofsted to report on excessive workloads in school inspections, have introduced a new framework which potentially will do the opposite to its intended purpose and drive more ECTs from the profession. The DfE needs urgently to review the workload side of the policy. The bureaucracy involved in the framework reflects the DfE’s preoccupation with accountability and paperwork rather than trust in leaders, tutors and mentors to enact the philosophy of the framework.

Great school leaders will not put teachers through the wringer on lesson planning. One of the primary schools where I observed a series of outstanding lessons, is Rock Ferry Primary School situated in a disadvantaged area of Birkenhead. Sara Radley, the headteacher, told me:

I have a brilliant staff that I trust implicitly to deliver our Core Framework. I do not tell them how to plan; they share our values and provided they deliver the Core Framework they can plan on the back of an envelope. We have no planning template which in my view would stifle the creativity my teams and my pupils thrive on.

The trust she shows in her team is like a beacon when compared to schools and academies I hear about that use checklists and clipboards to check everything staff do. Not all academies, of course pursue such policies.

Jonny Uttley, CEO of a Multiple Academy Trust (MAT) in East Yorkshire and Hull has in collaboration with governors and staff has developed a Trust Charter to protect staff well-being. The Charter states:

Staff are not expected to submit daily or weekly plans. IT systems will be aligned to establish systems and processes that minimise the replication of effort across different schools. (“Workload Charter | The Education Alliance”)

Indeed, in conversation he also added:

We trust our teachers. If their PPA time falls in an afternoon and they want to go home to work that is perfectly acceptable.

2. Collecting and analysing data

The DfE workload group on data in 2016 declared that they has not come across a single school where the time investment of teachers required to undertake half-termly data drops, six a year, justified the effort. Yet in 2021, some schools reportedly still demands this level of workload. The workload group’s recommendations were quite clear:

…we see no reason why a school should have more than two or three attainment data collection points a year, which should be used to inform clear actions. Evidence suggests that increasing assessment frequency is not inherently likely to improve outcomes for schools.

Teacher Tapp surveys reveal that nearly half of both secondary and primary schools still demand half-termly data drops with remarkably 1-3% demanding data weekly or fortnightly. It is not surprising that a higher percentage of schools that are in an Ofsted category of ‘requires improvement or ‘inadequate’ demand the half-termly data drop than schools in a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ category, confirming the point I made in Trust Blog 1 how inspection grading can damage rather than support schools; the grading pressurises the leadership who pass this pressure onto staff.

The data demands in some schools are horrendous. Tom Parkinson, Director of tracking software at Juniper, told me one school in Birmingham he worked with that required teachers to do a data drop on Year 6 classes of 32 pupils. They had to report on 218 objectives for each pupil on three levels, ‘not understanding’, ‘working towards’ and ‘working at’. This was done 3 times a year which results for each year 6 teacher 20,928 keyboard entries.

Juniper and the school agreed that this was not an effective use of time. The school’s policy was to stick learning objectives into workbooks, and it now places its trust in teachers who simply highlight such objectives when children show ‘understanding.’ In this way, gaps are identified which, after all, is the main purpose of pupil tracking.

This workload fades in comparison with some unlucky secondary teachers. When levels in the National Curriculum were removed, Tom Oates from Cambridge Assessment urged schools not to try and measure everything in the curriculum but to concentrate on the key concepts or skills. Ross McGill (@teachertoolkit), in his wonderful book Just Great Teaching reports how this advice is not always followed. He cites the example of a secondary teacher who teaches 10 different classes who is required to report on each objective with three sub-levels for each of his classes three times a year, which involves inputting 97,200 decisions on the computer.:

Another school leader showing trust to his teachers is Mark Johns, headteacher of St Bartholomew’s C of E Primary School in Bolton. His staff make judgements three times annually, in November, February and May. There are only three judgements needed on Reading, Writing and Mathematics (90 decisions in all for a class of 30). The school supplements these data drops with White Rose Maths’ end-of-block and end-of-term assessments. The SLT want teachers to inform them whether each pupil is working towards, working at, or working beyond the expected standard. Mark explained to me the purpose of this:

Once these judgements are complete, each teacher will then have a long, relaxed conversation with the SLT discussing each pupil and agreeing with us if particular interventions are needed; it is the conversation which is at the heart of this, not the collection of data.

Mark also pointed out that as a result of these policies, the school, which was in special measures some years ago and was haemorrhaging staff every year, is now rated ‘good’ and staff retention is high apart from those moving on to promotion.

3. Marking

Ofsted in 2015, aware of the research that feedback is only useful if learners act upon the guidance they are given, changed their practice from examining students’ books to evaluate the depth and extent of marking, to looking at the same books to see if the feedback was being acted upon.

…learners understand how to improve as a result of useful feedback from staff... (Ofsted framework, 2015)

Book scrutiny therefore became the norm for leadership teams, monitoring the marking of staff to ensure that feedback was effective, and teachers started using oral feedback stamps and a variety of stickers to provide evidence for the adult outsiders: Allen and Sims described it thus:

Schools have fallen victim to an audit culture in which teachers feel obliged to create a paper trail that proves to people, not present at the time, that unwritten activities really happened. (Allen and Sims, 2018, p89)

Thankfully, Ofsted made it clear in 2016 that they would no longer undertake deep scrutiny of workbooks in order to assess the quality of marking and feedback. One survey soon after this Ofsted guidance was published reported that 67% of teachers and leaders say that their schools had reduced or changed their approach to marking. If this figure is correct, then 33% have not changed, which means, for these unfortunate teachers, marking demands remain a burden. This is sad because as Ofsted confessed in November 2016:

As both the Department for Education Workload Review group on marking (March 2016) and the Education Endowment Foundation (April 2016) reported, there is remarkably little high quality, relevant research evidence to suggest that detailed or extensive marking has any significant impact on pupils’ learning. (Ofsted, November 2016)

Many schools in both primary and secondary sectors have amended marking policies, replacing an instruction that all students’ work must be marked with an expectation that a proportion of it must be assessed. The pressure for marking often comes from parents, so schools find ways to satisfy this demand without expecting excessive written marking. Dylan Wiliam put the issue beautifully with this statement on one of his blogs:

That's why I once described marking as the most expensive public relations exercise in history…

Many schools have now replaced a marking policy with a ‘feedback’ policy and allow teachers to incorporate a range of feedback techniques including verbal feedback, whole class feedback, self-evaluation, peer-assessment, and electronic feedback. Teachers of practical subjects have always used verbal feedback and students of all ages can benefit from a dialogue about their work which in most cases will have more meaning than written comments. My earlier book, Live Feedback, examines these issues and strategies in more depth here, and a newly published PDF on Great Teaching here shares 35 practical techniques associated with providing feedback at the optimum time – when students are actually working on a task and need guidance in real-time.

4. Lack of trust, constant surveillance, and scrutiny

Trust in planning, data collection, analysis and in marking are all possible but for some leaders it will be a huge step, breaking the habits acquired, maybe, over many years In my first senior leader post as a senior teacher, now called assistant headteacher, I was asked to organise the meetings’ calendar. I duly published a schedule that may be familiar to some readers:

  1. First Monday of the month Heads of Department

  2. Second Monday of the month Department meetings

  3. Third Monday of the month Heads of Year

  4. Fourth Monday of the month Year meetings

Why was it like this? Because we had always done it that way. I remember on occasions panicking because I had few agenda items, hassling colleagues for ideas ‘because the meeting is scheduled’ and has to go ahead. I continued with this in later years as a deputy head and later still as a headteacher. Five years after I left my headship the new principal, my former head of maths, put in place a visionary new policy. This secondary school now closes every Wednesday at 1.30 and students go home. From 2.00 until 4.30 every week is ‘meeting time,’ usually CPD in departments but flexible enough to meet other needs.

Jeremy Hannay, headteacher of the Three Bridges Primary School in Southall, London, who blogs under the banner of nordinaryclassroom here describes this issue beautifully.

It requires us to rethink what we’ve always been told is true, necessary, and valuable.

Jeremy says there are lots of schools that have done this. But he emphasises, such schools go against the grain; they have what he terms ‘rogue’ leaders.

These schools don’t perform regular observations and monitoring, or fire out over-prescriptive performance policies. Instead, they discuss and design pedagogy, engage in action research, and regularly perform activities such as learning and lesson study. Everyone understands that growing great educators involves moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem.

Hannay’s policies place great store on both supporting teachers and trusting them. Jonny Uttley, the CEO of a northern MAT mentioned earlier and author with John Tomsett of a brilliant book ‘Putting Staff Firsthere (Tomsett and Uttley, (2020), told me that in order to create their MAT charter, they asked staff in interviews to tell the leaders what required tasks were a waste of time (they called it the ‘common sense test’.) They applied most of the recommendations. The final word on the challenge facing leaders I am going to give to Jeremy Hannay with this wonderful summary of his philosophy:

So, it’s time to call out high-stakes accountability and all of its agents. It’s time to replace the stinking odour of inspection, monitoring and scrutiny with collaboration, connection, research, sustainability, and a genuine respect and belief in our professional people. This exists. It’s possible. It’s real.

Staff well-being

There is no doubt that teachers are under enormous pressure during these troubling times and staff well-being must be high on the list of priorities for school and college leaders. Given that many leaders are already brave enough to do this with no adverse effects, reducing the burdens on workload is a simple step that would have a huge impact upon staff morale. Leaders could:

  • Announce a cessation of scrutiny in lesson planning and marking.

  • Ditch onerous lesson planning templates and trust teachers to plan in whatever way they choose provided they meet the agreed principles (Parts 3 and 4 of Blog).

  • Make it policy that accountability for planning and marking rests with teams to support and monitor best practice.

  • Provide the time for teams to plan together.

Part 3 of this blog on Trust will focus on Ways Forward for school leaders keen to adopt policies that place greater trust in both teachers and teams. Part 4 will include an outline evidence-informed policy for teaching, learning and assessment that puts trust in teams at the heart without losing any rigour.

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