Numbers Game

Now, before you groan, we’re not just going to ‘do’ maths. We’re going to use maths to solve a problem. Or at least define a possible problem. So don’t give up just yet, okay? And no, this isn’t about data tracking, important as that is.

Let’s imagine that a school has a half dozen members of SMT. Let’s presume they all have a keen interest in teaching and learning, keeping up with CPD in their subject and so on. They’re in a position of power/responsibility, and they want students to learn more and their grades to improve. All fair assumptions so far? (Stop sniggering at the back.)

Between government initiatives and their own ideas, let’s assume that each half term every member of this notional SMT has to try something new in their classrooms. I don’t just mean a different kind of starter, but trialling or testing something that might have a wider impact.

It might be the latest DfE-endorsed SPAG marking policy. It might be a new behaviour tracking system. It might be something they’ve picked up at ResearchEd or NorthernRocks. Whatever it is, it gets tried out and the member of staff reports back to their fellow senior colleagues. Let’s say only one in six of these changes – all intended to make a difference – are rolled out more generally. SMT meetings correctly minute that ideas a b and c have been rejected due to lack of impact, that d and e from the local authority can be done in a way that doesn’t affect classroom staff, and only idea f will be actioned by so and so.

Each member of SMT tries one idea at a time with their classes. If this takes an extra ten minutes per class over a fortnight timetable, that’s a rough average of an extra half-hour per half term per class. On a fifty percent timetable, that’s maybe five or six classes. This is perhaps 30 minutes extra per week, but the teacher can see the difference and believes, honestly, that the time is worth it. They are sincere. They might even be right.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Six members of SMT. Over a year, each supervises one new intervention (in their management time, because this will end up being part of their TLR performance management). Oversight gets added to the school calendar, it’s listed in agendas and discussed in emails and INSET.

For a classroom teacher with a full timetable, each of these six initiatives adds an hour per week to their workload – but it’s cumulative. By the end of the year this would work out as six hours extra every week. It’s arrived gradually, and in many schools the cost is concealed by reduced timetables due to study leave and the post-exam lull. But in September…

Time is a limited resource. If we work hard – and I really think we do – then adding more jobs can only work in three ways:

  1. Do less of something else
  2. Do other things less well
  3. Take more work home

This last option – effectively invisible overtime – is often what happens.

An Alternative

Each term, based on my approximations above, there will be twelve proposed initiatives. It shouldn’t be too hard to work out what the impact would be for a few ‘generic’ staff members :

  • Mr Lower-School (mainly KS3, some KS4 teaching)
  • Ms Olderkids (Mainly KS4/5 teaching)
  • Mr P. Art-time
  • Mrs SM Tee with 30% timetable
  • etc

Now, it’s likely that these will show who is affected most. For example a colleague with mostly sixth form classes won’t necessarily appreciate the effect of mock exams. If each of 120 scripts (that’s the rough total of yr10 and yr11 papers I had to do) takes 10 minutes, that’s 20 hours – and that was the second set of mocks this year. On the other hand, I don’t teach much KS3 so a colleague who has lots of yr7 and yr8 classes will suffer much more from something changing our reporting system for them.

I hate to use reality TV as a model for schools, but there is perhaps something to be learned. Every new initiative is supposed to be examined for impact on workload anyway. So how about we make this assessment – which is done by SMT anyway – open to colleagues, with voting and comments from the people who will have to put them into practice?

Now, sometimes it’s not a question of whether we change something or not – it has to be done. But surely this will give more information about how and when we put a new demand into place? Listing existing interventions, and the time each of them takes, would also be interesting. Obviously marking loads, coursework deadlines etc vary between subjects. But at least we can then have the discussion about what will be removed to make time for the new approach. What are SMT prepared to sacrifice so that we can fit this latest demand into the zero-sum game of our time?

I’d be really interested in ideas and comments from colleagues who have been part of this process. Maybe I’m being unrealistic – maybe my numbers are miles off. But until I’m part of SMT (roughly a week after flying pigs are sighted over my school) it’s as close as I’ll get without your help.

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