Research School Network: “There is no failure. Only feedback.” – Reducing Workload Through Effective Implementation A considered and well crafted blog from Charlene Gethin about a research-informed approach to better marking practices

“There is no failure. Only feedback.” – Reducing Workload Through Effective Implementation

A considered and well crafted blog from Charlene Gethin about a research-informed approach to better marking practices

Charlene Gethin is the Executive Headteacher of the Forest Family within the John Taylor Multi Academy Trust. In this blog she writes about how several EFF research papers, her NPQEL (National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership) project across 7 schools and the support of the DFE workload toolkits helped shape their workload charter and approach towards better working practices for their staff whilst maintaining their high standards for teaching and learning for their children. You can follow her work here @GethinCharlene

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”

Roy T. Bennett.

The DFE and our teaching unions’ drive to tackle workload based on empirical evidence, DFE reports, staff well-being surveys and research papers have outlined that teacher workload is at an unprecedented level. Surveys revealed that teachers in England work far longer hours than their international counterparts, causing serious concern amongst both policymakers and the profession. Indeed, consecutive Secretaries of State for Education have now implemented policies aimed at reducing the number of hours teachers spend at work.’ (Allen, Benhenda, Jerrim and Sims 2019). This data suggests that teachers spend too much time on work that is not directly related to improving outcomes for children. Additionally, workload is recognised to be a barrier to recruitment and retention and an expense in managing attendance due to work related stress and, as staffing levels impact on stability and therefore the quality and consistency of teaching and learning standards in our schools, it’s a doubly important issue.

Reducing teacher workload has been part of our Forest Family ethos for many years. Our passion as leaders was corroborated by the DFE agenda in 2014 when the workload challenge was launched. Whilst the DFE toolkits provided a variety of practical resources in measuring the pulse of staff and ensuring engagement in and commitment to our improvement journey, we looked to more practical solutions from the EEF’s Toolkit, Guidance Reports and Evidence Summary papers including; Feedback’, A Marked Improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking’, Metacognition’ and Primary homework.’ These sources all fed into our research-led approach to make changes with and for our staff to not only impact positively on their work life balance but also the provision for The Forest Family children.

The plans for change spanned, to date, a 20-month implementation journey and has become embedded practice which is owned by all. Co-construction has been a vital and integral part of this process. The initial phase was to fully engage staff, identifying their motivations, concerns and priorities Evolution of this strategy with staff collaboration and involvement at the heart, has ensured it’s become embedded and transformative practice, with equality across the Forest Family. Some quick wins were identified by staff in honest and open discussions. These included, how we communicate with each other and parents, some of the paperwork we produce, the data we crunch and the homework we set. The main drive for our workload challenge was around reduced marking enabling teachers to give readily available feedback followed by planning for the small step crafting of lessons. The key premise we held to was that, if our teachers were enabled to be reflective due to better use of time, effectively using assessment for learning through reduced workload, they could impact more successfully children’s progress by altering plans for smaller, more targeted steps. Analysis of need within and after each lesson enabled us to provide immediate feedback without reams of writing in a colour coded and lengthy way for each child.

The EEFs guidance report, Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation’ as outlined brilliantly by Alex Quigley (Director of Huntington Research School) in his blog, Taming the Marking Monster’, enabled us to stage our approach and both inwardly cringe and smile at some of our deeply rooted beliefs including, why we write/​wrote at length in children’s books to enable progress and why was/​is it ingrained in our practice. Quigley outlined the habitual reasons why we do it:

  • Teachers can feel marking is doing something.
  • Parents see marking as teachers doing something for their child.
  • Senior leaders can see teachers are doing what they should if they are doing lots of marking.
Implementation Process pic

To Mark or Not to Mark?
One of our hurdles was to explore the amount, if any, marking we would put on the page.’ We decided there would be none at all’. Our reasons were shameful in that, if there was anything on the page it would look lacklustre and as if we had tried and failed, whereas if there was nothing then it was more clearly a policy’. Interestingly, in the early days when we said to professionals that we were a no marking family’ the horror on their faces was palpable and so we changed the wording, we were not a no marking family’, we are a no mark making family’ – marking is conducted very well indeed thank you very much! We don’t waste time in acknowledgement marking, which the EEF outlines is unlikely to impact on progress, or the boring and time consuming repetitive next step writing in lots of books – which would impact on progress but could be completed a more efficient way. We just needed to communicate our approach well so that it was fully understood by all, as the perception was that books which looked unmarked could be seen as ineffective practice.

Our implementation journey to this point amalgamated the EEF’s prepare and deliver phase. We had an academic term of on the job’ trials where we enabled staff to choose how they mark and what their feedback class based sheet’ would look like – a place where staff recorded the needs of the children, changes to planning and activities and how this would be fed back to the children so they knew how to improve. The main focus of this was to ensure that the EEF’s key main findings of Feedback – A Marked Improvement’, were considered. We had already understood the research around the detrimental impact of grading work which wasn’t part of our practice however, too much time was taken with next step, formative comments for each and every child, for all pieces of work. The need to recognise mistakes and unpicking whether this was just that, a mistake or a misconception could now be unpicked and used in grouping children for feedback based on common misconceptions rather than errors.

The EEF finding that The use of targets to make marking as specific and actionable as possible was likely to increase pupil progress’ enabled us to look at our learning objective targets which form the evaluation of success by both teacher and child and, is the one place that the work is acknowledged through self / peer and teacher assessment.

FIT sheet 200305 214507

The EEF finding that Pupils are unlikely to benefit from marking unless some time is set aside to enable pupils to consider and respond to marking’, is one of the main reasons why we have had developmental marking for so long. So, if we aren’t marking books, how do children know what to do in the time set aside for our feedback improvement time (FIT)? An approach which enables us to meet the recommendation that marking must be actionable’ and therefore support children in their learning and understanding how to improve.

Staff outlined that whilst they always strove to ensure there were alterations to planning, so much time was spent completing our previous marking policy that it left little time to re-plan. They now feel able to tailor planning with adjustments to each lesson after no-mark, marking’ and use our collegiately approved FIT sheet for a full set of books. Our staff, like our children, can record how they choose so this outline is a common expectation approach but variations exist and, they can be used when subject and senior leaders are monitoring. This makes it easy to match feedback (FIT) sheets to plans and children’s responses. One of the challenges of this approach included when children are absent or miss feedback – the teachers green writing is not in books so not easy to take children back to the day of feedback.

Analysis of the impact of this approach was, in part, through pupil voice. Children outlined that they felt that there was no difference in teacher feedback and that their work was valued. More crucially, children identified that they felt that teachers knew their next steps as well as previously but that they had new activities and reflection time to challenge their learning helping their understanding more. There was evidence that the time staff had gained enabled more effective planning and creation of tailored activities. It’s hard to say whether this would have been the progress regardless of changes as the methodology was not a scientific approach however, qualitative data has been positive. Data analysis showed that targeted pupils made good progress across each term and spoke well about how this new way of working impacted on their learning, including the changes we made to homework.

Staff questionnaires and discussions also identified the time consuming challenge of setting and subsequent marking of homework with limited impact. This was detrimental to workload and, although they are more than happy to conduct tasks which impact on children’s progress, this was more for our parents than our children. We therefore decided to revolutionise how we tackled homework and the EEF’s Primary Homework research project supported our development in this workload reduction approach with maximum impact for children and families – but that is another story. Additionally, our work towards being a fully metacognitive school has also supported our workload development. Whilst a task in itself in reviewing our curriculum (in planned staff meeting time and management release time), a refined schema and focus on planning for a well-crafted, small step curriculum offers clear targets to plan and mark against.

Overall, staff and pupil voice identifies that this work has been positive and they feel valued and listened to. Although, we do recognise there is still some way to go for staff to feel that workload has truly been tackled.

Our Trust’s commitment to a shared repository, working practice and peer to peer support also goes a long way to support staff wellbeing. The Headteacher wellbeing group and exploration of approaches to support our senior leaders is a welcome and necessary next step in managing the wellbeing of all staff in our Trust schools and is a model that can be shared outwards.

“There is no failure. Only feedback.”

Robert Allen

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