Given the popularity of our first episode on teacher workload, Doing Less Better, we revisited the subject with Headteachers Liz Whetham MBE and David Lowbridge-Ellis.

Host Helen Woodward spoke with Liz and David about their work on the most recent update to the DfE Workload Reduction Toolkit, the effects of remote education, and the future of school workload.


You can subscribe and listen to the episode in full above, and we’ve provided a transcript below!


Helen Woodward: Our guests today are Liz Whetham MBE and David Lowbridge-Ellis, and they’re both Headteachers passionate about teacher workload issues, and importantly committed to reducing wasted energy in everyday work. So Liz, you’re the Exec Headteacher at Westminster Primary School in Bradford, welcome back to 10 with Zen!

Liz Whetham: Good afternoon!

Helen: It’s lovely to have you here again, Liz. And David, you’re a Headteacher and you lead on school improvement across the Matrix Academy Trust. Welcome to 10 with Zen!

David Lowbridge-Ellis: It’s lovely to be here, thank you.

Helen: So, I know you’ve both worked on the DfE Workload Reduction Toolkit and Liz, of course we recorded a podcast over a year ago now when you were first talking about the toolkit. So let me first start with asking you – for someone who doesn’t know anything at all about the Workload Reduction Toolkit – where should you start?

Liz: Thank you Helen. As you mentioned, the toolkit has been online for a couple of years now, but has just been through a refresh. We’re aware from the DfE figures from the last month, that downloads are up 800% since we’ve relaunched the toolkit, so it’s great to know that people are going online to see what the toolkit has to offer to support them with doing less better with workload.

Helen: ‘Doing less better’ with regard to workload – I really like that. And an 800% increase, that’s amazing.

Liz: I’m particularly proud of the quality! It was a privilege to work with David and other colleagues around the country on updating resources so there really is something for everybody in the toolkit. Whether you’re reviewing marking of feedback, whether you’re reviewing behaviour… whatever it might be, there’s something there for most areas that schools would find their priority topic with regard to workload.

Helen: Ok, that’s really helpful to know. So David, what are the differences you hear about between primary teacher workload and secondary teacher workload? What are the main themes that come up?

David: So, in the 19 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve spent most of my time in secondary schools. But as part of my role across our trust – we do have a primary school and work with other primary schools – what tends to come up more than any other as a difference is planning. Particularly because primary schools tend to be smaller, not always but they tend to be, and because the teachers tend to teach across year groups rather than subjects. There are lots more opportunities in larger secondary schools for collaborative planning. So, not having to do everything from scratch. So that’s definitely something that comes up in conversation a lot. There is a lot of really good stuff in the Workload Reduction Toolkit about collaborative planning, and the great thing is you’ve always got a primary and a secondary example. So, even if you think ‘I’m in a primary school, I can’t collaboratively plan very easily’, there are primary schools that have managed to do it, so definitely have a look through that.

As I say, when we were updating the toolkit we tried to include different contexts as well, so special educational needs, specialist providers for instance. We always tried to make sure there was a balance of schools in different contexts. I mean, the area of the toolkit that I’ve contributed to mostly is marking. I don’t like the word ‘marking’, as anyone who’s been to any of my presentations over the years will attest, and you can read this in the toolkit as well. I like the word feedback, particularly in primary schools. What’s the point of writing reams and reams of red pen all over children’s work if they can’t necessarily read those comments and then be able to do things with them. So, that’s definitely something I’ve noticed with primary colleagues, they say ‘actually, the stuff about marking is even more relevant for us, because there’s no point in putting tons of red pen on children’s books, because they’re not going to be able to do anything with it.’ So they’re the two biggies that I tend to hear come up in conversation.

Helen: It’s really helpful to hear that there are a range of examples in the toolkit – primary, secondary, special ed – that’s really good to know. So, Liz, can you tell us what’s been working really well and what feedback have you had from the toolkit.

Liz: One of the things that works particularly well using the toolkit is where schools can have a strategic approach to workload. It isn’t piece-meal, it isn’t picking it up, ticking a box saying ‘yes I’ve done workload. Where we’ve included a number of resources in the toolkit, it does also involve the school having a strategic approach and regularly revisiting workload within the school, because things can change. We know we made great strides between the 2016 and 2019 teacher workload survey, there was a reduction, on average, of 5 hours per week for teachers, so we were moving in the right direction. Then, of course, the pandemic hit, and we all know that has then increased some workload with remote education and having both on-site learning and off-site, and preparing for eventualities.

What works is when schools have a strategic approach. What works is when schools use evidence-informed practice to inform the decisions they make when they’re school improvement planning and when they’re looking at individual scenarios. We had far more resources coming in that we could use in the toolkit, but one of the resources that we had coming in that we could actually use for quality assurance said ‘is this underpinned by evidence-informed practice’? ‘Does it tie in with what the EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) says about what effective feedback is, effective English teaching, effective maths teaching?’ So we really felt that this iteration of the toolkit is finely tuned to evidence-informed practice, and things that we know have worked. For the leaders that gave us their resources, the question was ‘what has the impact been in your own school?’ Don’t just give us a resource that we can pick up and play with, we want to know that it’s actually had an impact. Everything you see in the toolkit is by practitioners on the ground who have tried it in their school and there has been a positive impact in reducing workload. I think it speaks for itself with downloads being up 800% that people are finding it useful and revisiting and going back to the toolkit.

Helen: I’m thinking about the statistic that workload had reduced by 5 hours between 2016 and 2019, that’s really impressive, and fantastic that you had so many resources, but that you’ve been true to yourselves around it being from the ground up – these are the things that we have evidence to suggest actually work in practice, and they’ve come from practitioners. That’s fantastic.

I’m curious to know what’s changed between the first iteration of the toolkit and the refresh – what are the biggest changes, Liz?

Liz: Additional resources – there is actually a section on remote education, which won’t surprise you! Other additional resources, as David mentioned, to do with feedback. A number of resources in the new version have tied in with the publication of some of the EEF documents, so where schools have used a guidance document and realised it’s addressed workload, they’ve then created some resources. So there are a few sections – communicating with parents was another one, and I’m not 100% sure whether that was included because we’ve had more communication over the last 2 years, but certainly communication protocols and establishing really clear expectations with parents about what they can expect from a school having been through a couple of years of having teachers and Headteachers at the end of a telephone, and on their doorstep on some occasions. So the main things that have changed are we’ve responded to what our focus groups told us are the key issues, and then we’ve looked for the resources. There were 12 regional leads that worked on this, all around the country, through the Teaching School Hubs Council, and their first job was to go out to as many schools of people they knew, and talk about what issues were facing them at the time. We tried to respond to that by using the examples they gave us to have resources for.

Helen: Ok, so it’s definitely been practitioner needs-led.

Liz: Absolutely.

Helen: That’s lovely to hear, that’s great. David – let me ask you. What are you most excited about with regard to the future of the toolkit?

David: Well, this is going to be quite speculative, unless Liz is going to chip in here and say ‘these are definite plans’, we’re not privy to those at the moment! But something that Liz and I have been talking about with people at the DfE who are always keen on this, and I don’t think this is going to be controversial, is incorporating more to do with senior leadership workload. So it’s teacher workload at the moment, and obviously senior leaders are teachers, even if some of us don’t teach – I don’t have a teaching timetable at the moment. A lot of the things in the toolkit can already be applied to senior leadership and making decisions, so my favourite bit of the toolkit that I always bang on about is the graph which helps you identify things which take up so much time without having an impact on learning. We’ve always said that perhaps there needs to be more in there for senior leaders specifically. We know from the research that senior leadership workload has increased during the pandemic, certainly, although I’m not sure anyone has done the study, or I’ve missed it, to suggest that it’s gone back down to pre-pandemic levels.

Liz and I talk all the time about how we self-regulate as Headteachers and how we look after ourselves so that we can do the best possible job. The last thing you want is a Headteacher who’s burned out and then takes it out on everyone else. I’m sure Liz is the same as me, even if you’re having a tough time, the day from hell, you have to put that brave face on. But to be able to do that, you do have to take care of your own workload and your own wellbeing, and recharge. John West-Burnham uses the analogy of ‘filling up your reservoir’ so you’ve got something to draw from in the school day. Not feeling guilty about not getting through every single thing on your to-do list. I’m looking at my computer right now and I have 87 unread emails. I’ll get to those eventually. That sort of thing, really! And I know that a lot of times, senior leaders rely on a dialogue between each other. So Liz and I have lots of those sorts of discussions, and we are very supportive of each other, but it might be nice to try and codify some of that in the toolkit, perhaps.

Helen: Ok, so I’ve heard 3 things that jumped out to me there. One was about self-regulation, one was about the importance of our networks and having connectivity with leaders in other places and other areas, and the other one – and Liz, I heard you use this phrase the other week at a leadership session – ‘reservoir of hope’.

Liz: Absolutely, this came from the Church of England Foundation for School Leadership, initially – what is it we do to fill up that reservoir of hope? We were actually in a leadership witness group, where as a panel of professionals we were being asked questions by the next generation of senior leaders. And I actually felt that whole session had filled my reservoir of hope. Looking to the future with keen and passionate school leaders enabled me to go back with a bit of joie de vivre to continue my role in senior leadership. As we say, David and I aren’t privy to some of the workings and plans in place, but we’ve both certainly noticed, amongst ourselves and amongst colleagues, that leaders are doing everything they can to reduce workload for teachers, and often I’ve found going into a number of different schools to lead their workload with them, activities and tasks are sometimes given back to the SLT because they’ve rather have a piece of work done than the teacher do it. So we really need to start looking as senior leaders at how to mitigate that; for me, it’s using a lot of the toolkit methodology, like the impact graph that David mentioned. Get that strategic approach, using evidence-informed practice, not doing things ‘because we’ve always done them’ which is something that we hear sometimes. Hopefully, somewhere down the line there’ll be something on Senior Leadership Workload!

Helen: Well, we’ll look forward to that, we really will. Thank you both so much for joining us today on 10 with Zen!