Workload – being brave and finding a balance

24 February 2018

Author: Alison Richardson and Jacqui Trowsdale, Allenton Primary School

The concerns about teacher workload and its implication for staff recruitment and retention have been the focus of a number of news stories recently, as explored in our guest blog entry ‘Teaching – a Mary Celeste profession?’ by Sarah Charles and Alison Hardman from Derby University.

Here is one school’s journey with exploring the workload balance agenda and how they delved into the evidence and refined their own practices and approaches. Alison Richardson and Jacqui Trowsdale of Allenton Primary School share their experience.


Workload – being brave and finding a balance

Workload, as an issue, looms large on government agenda to increase their retention of teachers in Britain.  We have never yet met a teacher who would disagree with the argument that workload should be reduced, but herein lies the problem: How can you reduce teacher workload yet increase the amount of and effectiveness of feedback to children?

The DfE, in a recent policy paper, stated something which we in Allenton have known for a long time,

“Teachers say 3 of the biggest areas that can lead to unnecessary workload are:

  • Marking
  • Planning
  • Data management”

Over the past 4 years, this was an issue which had been plaguing the teachers and staff at Allenton, as during this time, we were a failing school and teachers felt ‘the more we did and the harder we worked, the more we could prove how worthy we were.’ But we soon came to the realisation that just because we were working harder, didn’t mean we were working smarter. During the course of the 4 years, there had been attempts to reduce the hours spent on marking specifically, however these attempts ended up being variations of what was already in place and didn’t actually reduce workload but rather added to it albeit in a more ‘exciting’ way to the children (such as the use of stamps and ‘show me’ stickers).

Approximately 2 years ago, the SLT led a staff meeting to fully assess the situation.  Outcomes from this reflected that staff spent, on average, 19 hours outside of the allocated ‘school time’ a week, on planning, marking and assessment. For some staff (including the two of us writing this blog), most were working upwards of 25 additional hours a week.  This was clearly not sustainable and was impacting on staff turnover and retention.  It was clear this needed addressing and Jon Fordham, our Headteacher, was proactive and forward thinking and wanted us to ‘work smarter rather than harder’.  After reading the EEF review ‘A Marked Improvement?’ Jon outlined some clear expectations into the research he wanted us to undertake.

  • Written feedback needed to kept to a minimum; ideally none at all
  • DIRT (time for children to respond to marking) needs to be maintained in every lesson
  • Mistakes need to be corrected in marking but errors feed into DIRT (see previous blog about research project on DIRT)
  • Children need to reflect on their learning and receive visual feedback (not written) on how they have done.

As we were the ones in classrooms and felt very strongly about this, he encouraged us to investigate and research workload reductions, whilst still giving quality feedback to the children.  As marking seemed to be the aspect which used the most hours, and yet was deemed the least effective, this was the area we focused on.

At the time, our marking policy was to use 3 stamps: Be Kind (this was to write an comment of what the children had done well), Be Specific (a comment/s of what the children had done wrong and ways for them to improve it) and Be Helpful (which would be an individualised task for the children to complete in DIRT time based on their feedback).   It was an expectation that all three stamps were to be used 3 times each week to make a ‘full mark’, however, most staff would use all three every day in each lesson as written ‘proof’ that we were giving ‘effective’ feedback (this was not the expectation of the SLT, but rather the pressure we felt from the possibility of OFSTED and the need to prove ourselves).

marking bits

To start, we went to the people who it would make the biggest difference to; the children.  We wanted their perspective on the current marking situation and which aspects they found most effective/useful.  We created an online survey with a combination of multiple choice and comment questions; these were completed by Year 3 and 5.

workload table

An example of some of the comments were:

‘Make it less complicated.’

‘I would change the way ‘Be Kind’ is laid out.’

‘I like that the ‘Be Helpfuls’ give me questions related to what I have learnt.’

‘I would like to have the same ‘Be Helpful’ so I can work with a partner.’


There were some comments which indicated that children wouldn’t change anything, however these were in the minority.


Transform Trust had also been trying to develop feedback across the trust schools.  As Maths lead, Jacqui attended a twilight session on ‘Maths Marking and Feedback’ which looked at reducing workload and the effectiveness of types of feedback.  This reinforced both the children’s and our own views that we were doing too much that was ineffective.

This twilight session referenced:

  • ‘Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking’ – Report on the independent teacher workload review group March 2016. 
  • ‘The Power of Feedback’ – Hattie and Timperly 2007
  • ‘Teachers made a difference, What is the research evidence’ – Hattie 2003

workload info


We decided that writing what the children had done right was superfluous and that a smiley face system and verbal feedback would motivate them and let them know if they had succeeded, as ultimately, this is what out complex comments were doing; if they were reading them at all.


The ‘Be Specific’ aspect was deemed to still be useful but only to be used when appropriate, such as when the children hadn’t fully understood as opposed to picking something out in the lesson just for the sake of it.  Children also stated that they preferred when all aspects of their work are specifically marked, so now each individual aspect of their work is either ticked or dotted, depending on if it’s correct or not.  Finally, the ‘Be Helpfuls’ were still to be used, however acting on the feedback from the children, rather than individualising the tasks, more group/whole task challenges were given; allowing them to be supported by their peers and reduce time spent by teachers preparing and writing 90 different ‘Be Helpfuls’ a day for the children to complete during DIRT time.

workload toolkit workload toolkit 2


Final impact

All of these changes, whilst seemingly minor, had a huge impact on workload.  The average time now spent on marking, planning and assessment is now approximately nine hours per week; a reduction of over ten hours.  The positive attitude towards the new marking policy was reflected in the recent staff questionnaire completed during OFSTED which stated “Staff enjoy working at the school and are proud to do so.  They confirmed that leaders take workload into account when developing and implementing policies.  For example, they were particularly positive about changes made since a review of the marking policy.” (OFSTED 15th November 2017).


Next steps

Although the marking policy has reduced workload significantly, both Jon and the Allenton staff continue to address the issue of workload proactively.  Recently, we have looked at a smarter way to plan to reduce duplication and allow for meaningful adaptation within lessons.  This is under development but still remains high priority.  The fact that workload is taken seriously at Allenton continues to improve staff morale and helps us to become more effective teachers who are innovative and smarter workers; which was ultimately our goal four years ago.



DfE. 2016. Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking Report on the independent teacher workload review group.

Hattie.J. 2003. Teachers made a difference, What is the research evidence? Article

Hattie.J, Timperly, H. 2007. The Power of Feedback: Review of educational research. March 2007, Vol. 77, No. 1, pp. 81–112.

NCETM. 2016.  Primary marking guidance (PDF) (cited from Maths’s Marking and Feedback Training, 2016, Rosslyn Park)

Further reading:

Elliot,V et al. 2016. A Marked Improvement. Published by EEF.


Posted on 24 February 2018
Posted in: Blog, Evidence

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