Workload- a different name for the problem?

(SCENE: Prehistoric Earth.  Ford and Arthur have been stuck for two years.)

Arthur:  Have you got an answer?

Ford: No, but I’ve got a different name for the problem!

(The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Fit the Seventh)

Teacher workload has been a problem for more than two years, but discussion of it has become more intense recently.  The government has plans, the opposition has plans, and this is all fine as far as it goes.  Unfortunately, stories like the one shared by Debra Kidd aren’t that unusual.

Reducing the number of forms and spreadsheets flying around would help… a bit.  I’m not sure that it would get the job down to something that could really be done honestly.  So- for a bit of fun during the holidays- let’s give the workload problem a different name- If we assume that paying teachers a salary buys a certain amount of time, what can they get done in that time?

Some assumptions

My physics teacher nature is going to start to show here.  I’m going to make some assumptions, but I don’t think they’re crazy, and I don’t think that changing them much affects the answer much.

Assumption 1: A full time, main scale teacher teaches 21 hours of lessons per week.

Assumption 2: There aren’t any repeat lessons (same content to 2 or more equivalent classes- clearly that saves some planning time, but I don’t have that on my timetable, so there).

Assumption 3: There are lots of things that teachers do that aren’t planning, teaching or marking, and they’re important.  I’m not going to try to put numbers on the time for them, because they’re too variable.

What if a teacher has 30 minutes to plan and mark for each hour of teaching?

Time on planning, teaching and marking = 21 x 1.5 = 31.5 hours per week, so there’s definitely time for being a form tutor, duties, meetings and other things.

30 minutes for planning and marking is going to be tight.  I really like the Every Book, Every Lesson approach to marking, and it does make it possible to give meaningful feedback to a whole class with 15 minutes of marking.  That leaves 15 minutes to plan a lesson.  That doesn’t feel like enough.  I could get my head around a pre-planned lesson in that time (read it, understand it, decide if I need to tweak any of the explanations or references to make them work for my class), but that would be about it.

What if a teacher has 60 minutes to plan and mark for each hour of teaching?

Time on planning, teaching and marking = 21 x 2 = 42 hours per week, which is getting a bit high; remember that there are other core things to add.

If we stick with 15 minutes of marking, that leaves 45 minutes to plan.  That should be enough to think about the lesson objectives, select appropriate resources, and put them together in a lesson.  It probably isn’t enough time to create substantial new resources, or write a lesson plan with enough detail for someone else to follow.


Firstly, the sweet spot for lesson related work looks like it is somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes per lesson.  The reality is that there are plenty of schools where the baseline expectations of teachers don’t fit into 1 hour per lesson.  The result is the scenario described by Andrew Old as The Job that Never Ends:

Of course, the (very) obvious explanation is that nobody, and I mean nobody, does the job to the letter.

Essentially, teachers do what they can off the list of essential jobs, and hope that the things left undone won’t lead to too much trouble.  That’s not fair on pupils (who can’t rely on what they will get) or conscientious teachers (who end up exhausted and guilty).

Secondly, the “30 minutes per lesson” scenario reminds me a lot of what I experienced as a pupil in the late 1980s.  Most academic subjects were taught from published resources, without much customisation.  Work was marked regularly, but written feedback was brief.

Finally, if teachers are really going to take control of their workload, the place where that has to happen has to be the way we approach planning and marking.  Streamlining the peripheral work can only achieve so much.  I don’t have an answer to the Workload Problem.  I do have a different name for it:

“If I’ve got 45 minutes per lesson to plan and mark, what can I do with that time?”

Any ideas?



4 thoughts on “Workload- a different name for the problem?”

  1. You assume that teachers are 100% efficient and can work continuously without a break. It takes me 1.5 hours a day just to mark the English books alone! We’re also not allowed to just give direct feedback in 15 mins; there has to be a certain amount written in each books for evidencing purposes.
    Even if we all just marked and planned for 30 mins per lesson, the margins are too tight. What happens when we are feeling under the weather, and end up working at 50% of our normal rate for a couple of days?

    1. Thanks for the comment. You are right that, even making some drastic assumptions, the timings of planning, teaching and marking are still really tight. That’s probably what I’m groping towards; the expected bespoke standard of teacher prep is only really doable in the short term. I also wanted to set an upper “no that really is crazy” limit (I’m a physicist- it’s what I do). 1.5 hours a day of English marking- and I fully understand how important English is- seems to be in that category.
      I admit I left the efficiency out deliberately. Partly to simplify the calculations, but also because I could imagine the meetings that ended “You want to waste time at the expense of the children?!”. I do wonder if the whole “Tasks teachers shouldn’t do” thing was a mistake- my previous career as a scientist had quite a lot of low-thinking stuff in each week, which was useful as a buffer, and gave time to actually think about stuff…

      1. My previous experience in finance/ICT is that it was normal to take 10 minutes every now and then to have a chat with colleagues about something completely unrelated to work. It was normal and I was a human being back then. Now, we can’t even take a few seconds to stare out of the window without feeling guilty.

        Given that 8-6 primary school hours are going to come in with the Labour party, I actually think it would be a good time to review working timetables, and acknowledge that for every hour of teaching, there is an hour of marking, planning, meetings and wall displays.

        So, we could have one set of teachers employed 7-3 with their teaching hours being 9am to 1pm (4 hours), and the other set working 12 to 8pm with their teaching hours being 2 to 6pm (another 4 hours). The time outside of the core teaching hours are for the aforementioned planning, marking, meetings and wall displays.

        The first cohort could be the more traditional teachers like myself who like to teach the core subjects like English, Maths and Science, and the latter cohort of teachers could be the progressive types who like to teach art, drama, PE, etc.


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