Cornerstones in action: How to make teacher workload work

Curriculum Lead and experienced primary teacher, Adam Newman, reflects on the current issue of teacher workload and offers practical tips for busy teachers. He describes how the Cornerstones Curriculum has helped reduce workload at his school, Farmillo Primary in Nottinghamshire.

The workload issue

I have to admit; I feel nervous about the recent agenda around workload. For a start, there is a misconception around what we mean by ‘workload’ and what constitutes work that is unnecessary or ‘over and above’ what the job should entail. You only have to look at Twitter and the education press to see the varying opinions on this topic.

We also have an issue with public perception. Teachers do not like to be seen as professionally ‘work- shy’, and we resent comments such as ‘you get so much holiday!’ (can you hear my teeth grinding as I type?). In 10 years of teaching, I have never worked with a work-shy teacher, but I have met countless teachers who are disenchanted by doing work with little or no value that prevents them doing the work that matters: the work for their pupils, their school and its community.

So, what is the current advice and how will it affect a teacher’s workload? The government's recent Workload challenge survey highlighted the three main areas that teachers felt could lead to unnecessary workload. Can you guess them?

They are marking, planning and data management.

How did you do?

Of course, those three aspects are central to our job. They are inherent in high-quality teaching and learning. But elements within these areas can contribute to an unnecessary workload at the expense of the most important people we serve.

The workload at my school

I’m lucky enough to work in a school where the leadership team has helped us focus our efforts on the best outcomes for the children. Some of the recommendations of the government's Workload reduction toolkit are already in place. I see value in the work I do every day, and while I work hard, the workload does not feel burdensome or unmanageable. Some days and evenings are busier than others, but never unreasonably so.

As a school, we are entering our fifth academic year using the Cornerstones Curriculum and my fourth year leading the curriculum. While one of the DfE suggestions to reduce workload is to use schemes of work, for us, Cornerstones isn’t used in this way (although it easily can be). We use Cornerstones as an inspiring, constructive starting point from which we plan.

Curriculum and lesson planning

One of the best things about this approach is that it reduces our planning workload. Teachers are not required to produce detailed plans for their Cornerstones topic lessons; each project contains a series of lesson ideas, freeing up teachers to tweak or annotate the plans to personalise it to their class. In this way, we are not using a scheme of work but have, in Cornerstones, a huge set of exciting, engaging learning programmes ready for us to work from, amend, mash together or use as inspiration for us to work beyond. For context, I should point out that we plan maths and English separately, although we do link the latter to the half-termly Cornerstones project.

Another time-saving and workload-busting thing we do is use an INSET day, every year, to plan our curriculum together. Having 10 or so teachers imaginatively and creatively bouncing ideas off each other helps to generate incredible plans in a productive and very efficient way. Indeed, government advice is to maximise collaborative planning, and I can see first-hand how this helps. You also share information about the children with previous teachers, find out which topics and concepts have been covered, and discuss any misconceptions that remain. Invaluable stuff.

Finding resources

A large part of the planning workload is creating or finding resources, making displays and gathering the subject knowledge needed in the first place. Since using Cornerstones, this aspect of our workload has also reduced. We find the Cornerstones resource lists, tailor-made lesson resources and ‘Useful stuff’ document for each project saves us valuable time. The ready-made display resources are also fantastic – a welcome change from when we had to make everything ourselves!

Marking

Planning and marking often go hand-in-hand. One of the ‘non-negotiables’ for staff at our school is to plan for learning, not lessons. It avoids the trap of generating marking that has no direct benefit to the children. Thinking about what we want the children to learn, what they will get out of a lesson and the best way for the children in our class to access and attain that, is at the heart of what we do. There was a time when some of us felt that Ofsted wanted everything in books, fully-marked, with whatever rainbow of colours and symbols we had read about in a recent, local inspection report. The work done by Sean Harford and colleagues is now debunking that and, while I think its legacy remains in part, schools seem to be taking their feedback policy back to doing what works for the children in their setting.

I’d also like to mention the positive effect that ‘Writing conferences’ has had on marking workload at Farmillo. Introduced by our English Coordinator, these ‘Big writes’ are marked with the children (except in summative pieces) to ensure they understand their feedback, can act on it, and make progress. It reduces overall workload, feels meaningful and enables us to get a good picture of the children’s understanding. A win all round!

Local community

A less talked about but essential tool for reducing workload is to make use of your local community. At my school, we have made links with some fantastic local organisations and experts. A big part of the curriculum is giving children memorable and meaningful experiences. We’ve found that local trips and engaging in conversations with local groups have had an enormous impact on the children and staff. A great example is Pleasley Community Orchard, who have supported us in organising, understanding and running our beekeeping, maypole dancing and even rocket launching science lessons! Without their help, the organisation alone may well have been inhibitive to what was, in the end, a superb learning experience. It’s partnerships like these that enable us to tap into local knowledge, helping us deliver what we hope is a terrific curriculum for our pupils within a manageable workload.

The role of senior management

As many of you know, the government and Ofsted take the workload issue seriously, and the latter will take senior leaders to task if undue pressures are put upon their staff. As a Curriculum Lead in my school, there is always work to do and to listen to staff is key; they know their classes. Ensuring the things we ask of our colleagues are manageable, beneficial and purposeful, are priorities I need to keep in mind as Curriculum Lead. There are times when I have, and will, get it wrong, and I need to be open to those conversations.

The future for workload

In the 10 years that I have been teaching, I’ve seen plenty of change. My mother, a teacher of over 30 years, assures me that some of what’s changed has been done before. The biggest issue with workload over recent times has been a perception of doing things because Ofsted wants to see it. The biggest negative impact on my own perceptions about workload was the feeling that work had no positive impact on the children and was simply a paper exercise. Marking policies, particularly, seemed afflicted by this. So, in my opinion, the debunking of workload myths are welcome.

On a final note, much of what I’ve outlined in this blog is based on the decisions we’ve made as a school, with our children at the forefront of those decisions. Knowing the value of the work you do is, in so many ways, the key. The heart of the workload issue is not always the amount of work but its worth. It is seeing how your work benefits the children and celebrating the resulting buzz in the classroom. When this happens, there is little ‘workload issue’.

Links

Cornerstones Curriculum
The Curriculum magazine
Sean Harford blog
Amanda Spielman blog
Farmilo school website
Adam Newman on Twitter @3edmigos

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Caroline Pudner

Caroline is a Curriculum Consultant at Cornerstones. She writes curriculum materials, teaching resources and blogs. Caroline has 10 years primary teaching experience and has worked in both museums and galleries education and adult education.

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