Everywhere I look at the moment I am seeing exhausted staff in school. This runs across leadership all the way through to support staff and, whilst the November to Christmas gloom is not something new, seeing people so demoralised and exhausted so soon after the half term is.
So, what seems to be happening? Well, obviously the pressure of Ofsted is be a biggie. The return to business as usual is putting people under immense pressure, and whilst these conversations may well be very worthy, people are concerned by it. Having worked in schools both deemed to be ‘requiring improvement’ and in ‘special measures’ I know what it feels like to be constantly looking over your shoulder and waiting to the hammer to fall. That is, in itself, exhausting and if you are on social media reading the horror stories it is no wonder that people are worried. Add to that the fact that some leaders use this as a stick with which to beat staff with (yes, I said some and I also know there are complex reasons as to why some do) then again it is unsurprising that moral seems low. Even the positive stories I see some put up about their experiences quickly get swept up in maelstrom of negative stories and once again I am not surprised that people are feeling at the end of their tether.
However, when you begin to unpick further the reasons as to why people feel so under pressure right now, you uncover a number of other things. Despite clear evidence that written feedback is not necessarily the best way to go about things, there are still schools doing this. They will argue that despite the problems this raises in terms of workload, it works for their students and their contexts. There are some teachers who are keen to hang on to triple marking after spending a great deal of time making it work, and once you have invested a lot in that, I can see why you might feel reluctant to consign it to the bin.
Then there are the planning demands. In an ideal world time will have been given to plan centrally, resources developed that people can adapt to their own needs and the quality of this will be superb and offer opportunities to really zoom in on what matters. However, this is not everywhere, nor has time been necessarily factored in to do this, and then we have many who are working again in isolation to produce what is needed. We can tell people that they shouldn’t be working like this, but without the resources to do it, then we will continue to see people who are struggling to meet the demands.
Even if we do have those strong systems in place for planning and marking (or preferably high-quality feedback) we still have all the day-to-day operational things to manage too. If you don’t work in a school with a strong support system for managing behaviour, teachers will be running detentions, chasing homework (of course after setting something which is meant to be both meaningful and engaging and interesting to all) and following up issues in the classroom. We have pastoral needs to be attended to, meetings to support specific students and adaptations, which quite rightly, need to be made to meet their needs. That is all just a little bit more, but each little bit quickly adds up.
Reporting seems to have made a come back in some areas, and writing detailed reports on progress, measured against a criterion which may or may not meet the new curriculum requirements, is once again landing on peoples’ ‘to do’ lists. There is a sense that in some areas communication with parents improved, but in others it diminished, and people are desperately trying to fill that perceived gap with hours’ worth of written feedback.
Staff are monitoring, checking, and recording progress like there is no tomorrow and sadly at this rate I wonder if there even will be. All of that is with a backdrop of rising staff and student covid cases, the return of league tables and a general sense that schools are the places where all of society’s ills can be cured.
Well, I suggest a pause. We can’t necessarily pause Ofsted, even if we want to, and railing against them on social media is unlikely to see them changing the framework. We also can’t control what the DfE decide to say as part of their race for publicity and we, like it or loathe it, (for the record I really loathe it) we are stuck with whoever is on the throne at the moment.
Whilst we might not be able to control these things there is still much, we can do. Is there really a need to demand planning in advance or planning to appear on a certain document? Is it absolutely necessary that all departments work to the same kind of assessment tracking, or might it be that we need to explore that from the ground up? Are there ways we can continue to develop the communications with parents without adding two additional parents’ evenings and a round of reports into the mix? I would say there are alternatives, and we need to be brave enough to find them.
But that takes time. It isn’t going to happen overnight, and we need to give ourselves a bit of space to decide on a few things:
What are our key levers? What do we really need to focus our time on?
We can’t do it all, because adding more just doesn’t work. So, then we need to ask, what will we stop doing? This may even include some of the things we value and are having some impact but there may be things which are even higher yield. That isn’t an easy question to ask, and it may even be quite uncomfortable.
However, from what I am seeing, just adding a little bit more really isn’t going to work for us.
Zoe’s latest book, The CPD Curriculum, is available now.