DFE workload reduction 2024 – A missed opportunity

dfe workload reduction 2024

We’re all working too hard, and new advice from a government task force won’t change that, says Kevin Harcombe…

Kevin Harcombe
by Kevin Harcombe
Paddington Bear whole school resource pack
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Paddington Bear – Whole-school lesson plans & activity sheets

Ten years ago, the then education secretary, Michael Gove, removed ‘21 tasks teachers shouldn’t do’ from the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions document.

It saved a few pages on printing costs and, well, surely it was obvious what teachers shouldn’t do? But now, like rickets and TB, these guidelines are back, with couple of new friends in tow.  

23 Things Teachers Shouldn’t Do is not what you’d call a catchy title. It’s no 12 Labours of Hercules or 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, is it? 

The list comes from the grandly named Workload Reduction Task Force. To my mind, a task force describes something substantial and impactful. It’s not a group of suits closeted in a Whitehall office with Styrofoam cups of instant coffee and half a packet of supermarket own-brand Hobnobs. 

Perusing the list of the great and the good who make up this task force, I see what some unkind commentators might describe as a self-selecting group of superannuated educationalists. Plus, a junior minister whose principal role is presumably to give the team a semblance of authenticity. And maybe pay for the biscuits. Among this group of 14 people, there is only one classroom teacher. 

DFE workload reduction 2024: Nothing new

Setting up a task force is a classic political response to something that is complex, imponderable and unlikely to be achievable without large amounts of cash. But it gives the impression that they’re doing something. 

The DFE workload reduction 2024 list of things we shouldn’t do is barely changed from 2009 (an indictment in itself). It includes bulk photocopying, duplicating data entry, putting up classroom displays and, you guessed it, taking down classroom displays. 

My own list would include attending useless meetings (i.e. nearly all of them), and putting up with fidget spinners in a mainstream class. (This is related to the largest workload elephant in the room. That’s the growing number of SEND children in mainstream classes without adequate support.) 

And teachers should not have to wipe bottoms. I refer not to their own bottoms, you understand, but to children’s. I once passed the Year R executive bathroom facilities and saw a be-gloved and clearly discomfited teacher tentatively, and wholly ineffectively, dabbing at a child’s soiled behind with wet wipes.

It put me in mind of some great artist like Caravaggio adding the finishing touches to an old master with a delicately applied paintbrush.

Of course, if there is a medical need present provision must be made. But this should be paid for, not simply added to the teacher’s ever-lengthening list of duties.  

If I had a hammer

The new guidelines are also accompanied by a workload reduction toolkit. ‘Toolkit’ suggests something practical – tried and tested implements that get a job done; solid and above all practical things, like hammers and drills.

This toolkit contains nothing of the kind. It begins by blithely shooting itself in the foot by suggesting a survey to ‘ascertain which tasks may be both unnecessary and adding to workload’.  

In case this opening shot missed the toes, more follow: ‘establish a school wellbeing committee’ (so, more meetings); ‘a workload and wellbeing action plan’ (so, more paperwork); ‘establish a school workload group’ (so, more things to do). And, best of all, ‘a programme of work to tackle workload’ (so, more bloody work).

You really couldn’t make this stuff up – yet the DfE has. The first – and last – question on any teacher survey should be: ‘Do you have to fill in mind-numbingly unnecessary examples of paperwork like this one?’ 

Barring the input of significant further funding, the greatest impact on increasing or lightening teacher workload comes from school leaders. If they’re piling on the work, there isn’t much teachers can do about it. That’s apart from going to work for a less demanding headteacher. Or Aldi.

Part of a leader’s duty of care is to protect their team from useless nonsense, but school leaders are sometimes too distanced from the realities of daily classroom life to realise how much they are part of the problem. The headteacher’s – and government’s – guiding dictum should be the same as doctors’: ‘First, do no harm.’ 

Kevin Harcombe is former headteacher of Redlands Primary, Fareham. 

You might also be interested in...