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As educational research develops and pedagogy adapts, there are more and more expectations of and accountability measures placed on teachers and school leaders. Yet, in the face of educational reform, the mechanics of a school stays the same, for example timetables and class sizes. Thus, the workload for teachers and school leaders increases.
Ireland is undergoing a period of extreme educational reform, as outlined in the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019; the introduction of a transparent lesson grading system; the introduction of the fitness to teaching disciplinary process; the introduction of additional allocated hours for training and speculation by some teachers unions that Irish teachers professional registration will soon only be granted if professional development requirements are met. The profession is being regulated at a rapid pace.
There are many benefits of regulation, including transparency for teachers, clear guidelines and expectations for all stakeholders and raising the profile of teaching and learning to improve standards across the board. However, as with any type of change, it is crucial to make new processes, policies and initiatives user-friendly; as well as ensure that the timeline allows for change to happen in an effective and efficient manner. Put simply, make life easier for teachers and school leaders to implement change positively in their classrooms and schools.
If we look to our neighbours across the pond for guidance and learn from their mistakes, it would be a strong starting point. Teachers in the UK have been experiencing extensive and pressurised reform over the past decade. Many of the new initiatives in the Irish education system mentioned at the beginning of this article, have been heavily influenced by practice there. But it is important to note that in the UK, over 23% of teachers who graduated in 2011 have since left profession with 76% citing workload as the cause (UKGov). The Guardian conducted a survey for teachers in 2016, with some troubling results:
- Almost a third of teachers work more than 60 hours a week.
- One in five teachers intends to leave due to workload concerns.
- Almost 80% of the 544 teachers responsible for recruiting who were surveyed said they had struggled to recruit new staff in the past 12 months.
- More than 70% of teachers said they were worried that a shortage of good teachers was severely affecting children.
- Only 12% of teachers felt they had a good work-life balance.
Having worked as a teacher, school leader and education consultant in the UK for a number of years, I experienced and witnessed first-hand the realities of these concerns highlighted. For example, exam students not being taught by specialist teachers due to recruitment difficulties. It is crucial that we do not venture down the same path here in Ireland.
Feedback from professionals I have worked with in Ireland indicate that marking and feedback is one of the areas which demands most of their time. With increased administrative expectations, this has grown. So, how can we support teachers and school leaders make educational reform more effective and efficient? Or how can we make life easier for them?
One way we could support teachers is to introduce a clear marking and feedback policy and government guidelines to ensure transparency.
A valuable question for teachers and school leaders is why do we mark? I would argue to give clear feedback to students; to require students to correct and improve their work and to understand gaps in knowledge and inform teaching. Should teachers mark everything? I would argue that they should not as you cannot have quality if there is quantity. From a professional perspective with the best interests of students at the heart of my argument – I would ask teachers why are you marking and what will add the most value to the teaching and learning? Unfortunately, many teachers are under the illusion that they must mark every piece of work a student does. This is both inefficient and ineffective for all parties. Teachers do not have the time to mark every piece of work in-depth and often end up ‘ticking and flicking’ and using general statements to describe work. This offers students limited constructive criticism to enable them to refine their work.
Dylan Wiliam, leading educational researcher and lecturer, celebrated worldwide for his work on formative assessment, recommends what he calls ‘four quarters marking’. This means that teachers should mark in detail, 25% of what students do; they should skim another 25%; students should then self-assess about 25% with teachers monitoring the quality of that and finally, peer assessment should be the other 25%. It’s a sort of balanced diet of different kinds of marking and assessment. Utilising marking practices, like those I mentioned, that have little impact on student achievement and have a negative impact on teacher workload and morale makes little sense. By adopting an approach like four quarters marking, we might go some way to address this issue and at the same time, give students more ownership over their own learning. Wiliam, talks at a 2017 SSAT event about marking, workload and how leadership can support teachers to become even better and states “the only way to get people to improve is to stop people doing good things, to give them time to do even better things”.
If schools were to implement a clear marking and feedback policy that gave teachers transparency regarding expectations this would be a huge help. Or better yet, engage students and teachers in the process of establishing a marking and feedback policy. As Black et al. maintain in ‘Assessment for Learning: Putting It into Practice’ 2003, by involving students in their education it has been found that it actively improves their learning. Currently there are no guidelines on marking and feedback nationally and many school leaders I have worked with have disclosed that they do not have a marking and feedback policy. In the UK, some of the best schools I worked with implemented a “mark one piece of work for every six hours you teach” policy. This piece of work would be marked in detail offering positive and constructive feedback. Working with teachers and school leaders in Ireland has shown me that teachers are confused about what is expected of them in terms of marking and feedback. Introducing a clear policy and guidelines is one way in which teachers and schools could be supported with their workload. This would allow them to focus more time on teaching and learning and implementing change effectively and efficiently.
As William Pollard states: “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable”. Let those who initiate change in the Irish education system work towards managing the change to produce better outcomes for all.