If even Ofsted is highlighting workload the government must surely act

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Ofsted is often – and rightly – criticised for not doing enough to point out the impact of funding and recruitment pressures on the schools and colleges it inspects, and the part that these systemic issues play in outcomes.

After all, it is obviously ridiculous to downgrade a school or college for circumstances entirely outside its control, with all the resulting repercussions of that negative judgement, particularly as those circumstances derive from the government’s neglect of the education system.

It is hard to see how the inspectorate can be a force for improvement if it fails to diagnose the problem.

And there is something Kafkaesque about a government agency passing judgement on perceived deficiencies in a state institution caused by another government department’s inability to competently run that public service. But there you go. That’s the system.

So, credit where it is due – and it is not often that we say this – for Ofsted’s report this week on the state of professional development in our schools. 

According to its press release, teachers are not getting the high-quality training they need and struggle to find time for professional development due to their mounting workloads.

Schools understand the importance of professional development, but “teachers and leaders struggle to find time for training due to competing priorities.”

The press release does not go on to explain the reasons for mounting workloads and time pressures. These are, of course, the result of years of underfunding, teacher shortages, the erosion of local support services, and the rising tide of poor mental health and wellbeing among children against the backdrop of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis.

But even so, Ofsted’s findings are hard for the government to explain away as anything other than a reflection on the government’s own terrible record on education. It is a slice of evidence – provided by a government agency no less – of the impact of workload pressures on efforts to support, nurture and develop the workforce. 

And it is particularly problematic because professional development has been at the heart of that rarest of things in recent years – a set of government policies which are actually pretty good. Several education secretaries ago, Damian Hinds introduced a career development plan which included the early career framework and which acknowledged the importance of professional development on classroom practice, learning outcomes and teacher retention.

What a terrible indictment it is then that the government’s woeful record on funding and teacher supply has watered down the benefits of one of its few decent initiatives.

And this is only one aspect of the impact of workload pressures on staff and children. The damage goes far beyond professional development and seeps into every area of school and college life. Teachers and leaders are often stretched to breaking point, and, sadly in some cases, beyond breaking point. Workload is frequently cited as the main reason – alongside pay erosion – for teachers quitting the profession. It is a huge factor in the worsening recruitment and retention crisis which then adds to workload pressures in a vicious cycle.

We’d like to see Ofsted do much more to call out funding and teacher supply pressures. We believe that it is the job of an independent inspectorate to hold all parts of the system accountable and not just schools and colleges struggling with inadequate budgets. That would be a huge step forward in winning the trust of the profession.

This week’s report is a long way from being anything on that scale, but it is a small step in the right direction. And, if even Ofsted is highlighting workload pressures, the government must surely act.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 12/05/2023 09:00:57