Strategies to improve staff work-life balance

Funding cuts, changes to the curriculum and increased accountability mean that teachers are squeezed tighter and pushed further every day. But there are things that can be done to ease that pressure, finds Imogen Rowley from The Key

Excessive workload is a major factor contributing to the thousands of teachers leaving the profession every year, and tackling it should be top of every school leader’s list.
Funding cuts, changes to the curriculum and increased accountability mean that teachers are squeezed tighter and pushed further every day, but there are things that can be done to ease that pressure and help to keep more teachers in post. And it’s not just teachers – headteachers, SBMs and admin and support staff are all drowning in work, but are too often forgotten in the workload debate. Here are three strategies to help tackle workload for everyone in your school.

Lessen the reliance on pupil performance data

In a recent poll, The Key found that excessively reporting pupil achievement data was in the top five low-impact things that school leaders have stopped doing that have most reduced teacher workload. Ofsted has warned against an over-dependence on data to assess pupil performance because it’s not always reliable, yet still many SBMs and teachers across the country are tracking every move their pupils make. It’s hard to avoid it, especially under the current accountability system, but here are some ideas about how to start making smarter data decisions and open discussions with your staff and stakeholders.

Firstly, move away from trying to make precise predictions of individual pupil outcomes. A study by Ben White, a secondary school research lead who contributed to the DfE research group on data use, found that only 29 per cent of 600 teachers’ predictions about exam results were correct. Instead of predicting individual grades, use a wider banding measure to reduce the reliance on false precision and still get a good sense of how well a cohort will do in exams. You can also measure progress against a specific statement or a knowledge test of key concepts, terms or facts, rather than predicting progress 8 scores
Other advice is to not stick to rigid flight paths. They may be broadly accurate for an aggregated group, but prior attainment gives only a rough idea of individual performance, and so many pupils will wrongly be classed as over- or under-performing for much of their school life. Instead, trust teachers to quickly assess understanding in lessons, which will not only provide interventions quicker but also establish the rough position of pupils relative to others.
The third strategy is to provide multiple sources of evidence for Ofsted to assess pupil progress, such as lesson observations, discussions with pupils and work scrutinies. Ofsted will want to check the performance of different groups of pupils, such as disadvantaged pupils or the most able, but some groups are just too small to make any meaningful inferences about the group as a whole.

Everyone has a part to play in making sure that data is used well, so don’t be sceptical or wary of making changes to how your school handles data: the evidence, the government and Ofsted are on your side.

Introduce flexible working

It’s hard to shake off the impression that flexible working just ‘won’t work’ for teachers, even if it is proven to reduce stress, provide greater satisfaction with work and improve a sense of work-life balance in other industries. Three-quarters of respondents to a 2015 NASUWT survey said that they felt their wellbeing wasn’t important to their employer, but currently only eight per cent of teachers say that flexible working is encouraged at their school. In an industry struggling with chronic recruitment and retention issues, it would make sense for schools to be more open to allowing flexible working as a means of keeping excellent teachers from ditching the profession altogether. However, we need examples of schools who are doing it and doing it well before we can take the plunge ourselves.

Manchester Communication Academy has offered flexible working since it opened in 2010, with 12 of its 100 teachers working flexibly. It is able to do so thanks to its formulaic timetable: the school is organised into six faculty areas, and each year group is timetabled to one faculty area per period.

This means that an entire faculty is free for two periods every week – and the school can make adjustments if some teachers need to drop children at school or care for elderly relatives. The academy is also able to offer all staff one ‘flexi day’ off every year. Furthermore, being open to part-time applicants means the academy spends less money on expensive supply staff: it reduced its supply budget by 73 per cent in the last academic year.

To make flexible working work for you, see if you can adjust the timetable to allow free or PPA time at the beginning or end of the day.

Advertise all vacancies as flexible hours, to attract a wider pool of candidates and make sure you don’t inadvertently put off outstanding teachers.

Schools are also advised to facilitate job shares – these can work well, as long as there is shared non-contact time so the teachers can do proper handovers and plan effectively, and if they set clear expectations between themselves for sharing responsibilities like reports and parents’ evenings.

Inbox management strategies

Hectic inboxes and emails arriving at all times of day and night isn’t a problem unique to teaching, but it can often feel like a never-ending, relentless battle trying to keep on top of all the messages from parents, colleagues, and marketers, before the next one arrives and the cycle starts again.

Changing your school’s culture around sending and receiving emails can go a long way towards staff feeling they have a sense of control over their time, but it’s important that everyone is on the same page with any new strategy or approach you try to introduce. Just one teacher replying to a parent outside school hours, for example, sets an unwelcome precedent for everyone that it’s OK for parents to contact staff whenever they like. Likewise, the senior leadership team should lead by example and adopt good email etiquette themselves – which includes not emailing staff when they’re at home or on holiday.
Further advice about how to keep inboxes in check for good include unsubscribe from anything you haven’t read in the last six months. But be careful unsubscribing to anything in your spam or junk folder, as you could end up receiving more spam by notifying the sender that your email account is active.
Set designated times of the day for checking email, and disable all notifications on your phone or desktop so you’re forced to stick to those times and can’t get distracted when you’re doing other things.

Create filters and rules to send emails that meet specific criteria straight to the correct place – so you won’t be distracted with amazing new offers on office stationery while you’re trying to deal with a tricky pastoral issue, and can address less important matters when it’s quieter.

Set up an automated reply to let people emailing you know that you only reply at certain times, or that you will reply within the next 48 hours – this eases the pressure on you but also assures the sender that you’ve received their message so they won’t send it again.

Use bullet points and be ruthless with how you write – stick to no more than five key issues per email and don’t put multiple things into the same bullet point. It may seem obvious, but clearly stating the action you require from the email at the bottom of the message will ensure it does its job and everyone knows where they stand.

Small steps, big improvement

Excessive workload in schools won’t go away overnight, and certainly it’ll require a shift in mindset to overhaul many practices that have become so engrained in school life that it seems like there’s no way out. But little by little, everyone in schools can chip away at the day-to-day practices that contribute to teachers’ workload, and make teaching the rewarding and enjoyable profession it deserves to be.

Download The Key’s new workload resource hub at


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