Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Reducing the desk pile

In the fight for a reasonable work-life balance, ASCL is encouraging members to say no to some of the demands placed on them by external bodies.

Increasingly concerned about their work-life balance and health, Hertfordshire heads wrote to ASCL recently listing the documents on their desks. The list is in the box at right. In fact, there is more.

Hertfordshire has had a children services director for some years and so is well ahead in reorganising and integrating its education and social services. School leaders elsewhere will be expected to attend many meetings to deal with this issue, in addition to Every Child Matters and extended schools.

The Hertfordshire heads noted that the draft admissions code is 90 pages, fire regulations 144 pages, health and safety standards in kitchens 30 pages, section 52 budget statements 162 pages, financial management standards 62 pages plus CD-Rom and internet site, sixth form funding guidance 56 pages and PLAMS 60 pages (and for one year only).

ASCL members in other areas could create a similar list, with local expectations and burdens placed on top of national regulations and guidance.

College leaders have faced this level of bureaucracy for many years. Although incorporation in 1992 freed them from local authority bureaucracy, this was gradually replaced by an even more burdensome regime, with a reading pile bigger than that for school leaders and masses of forms to complete.

To characterise this as paperwork and administration does not do justice to the nature of the problem. Equally significant is the time taken to deal with these issues. Apart from numerous external meetings to attend, senior leadership team meetings are diverted from the task of raising educational standards and a great deal of governors' committee time is taken.

Schools and colleges that have built larger administrative teams of senior support staff are in a better position to deal with the burden, but not all can afford the number of support staff required.

We know that only 40 per cent of secondary schools have a bursar or business manager on the senior leadership team. In some schools, this will be a matter of choice in regard to the leadership structure, but for many others it will be because they cannot afford to take on the extra senior support staff that they need.

ASCL's response

ASCL has sometimes come in for criticism over its alleged failure to protect its members from the excessive demands made upon them by local authorities and the DfES.

"How can you allow this to happen?" I am sometimes asked.

In fact, ASCL uses its influence with government to communicate these concerns. Within a day of receiving the letter from Hertfordshire heads, I had used it in meetings with education ministers and senior civil servants to impress on them the problems that school and college leaders are currently facing.

I also sent it to the PricewaterhouseCoopers review team to back up the previous ASCL evidence on the extent and nature of change facing schools.

I emphasise to these people that it is not just the number of changes, but the manner in which they are imposed that makes life so difficult for our members. Almost every document has many pages and the problem is then compounded by the local authority and the Learning and Skills Council issuing further long documents on the same topics.

I am not alone in making these points at the centre of government. The Implementation Review Unit is charged with monitoring the bureaucratic burden on schools and the Bureaucracy Reduction Group has the same role in the college sector.

Both groups have ASCL members on them and the chair of the IRU is Chris Nicholls, ASCL Council member and a head in Chelmsford. All the IRU members serve in schools and therefore see at first hand the pile growing on their desks.

NCSL is reviewing school leader workload too and ASCL is working closely with them.

Call for action

This all cries out for action, yet the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which became law in November, is largely irrelevant to the real needs of schools. Indeed, it will add to the burden of documents to be read and dealt with.

In particular, the increased powers given to local authorities may, if previous practice in many areas is followed, result in more work for school leaders.

The Further Education Bill currently before Parliament, although it has some welcome elements, may well have some of the same effects in colleges by giving the Learning and Skills Council extra powers to instruct nominally independent college corporations to dismiss senior staff.

The president (see Doesn't add up) has drawn attention to the statistical quirks in Ofsted judgements, summarised in the chief inspector's annual report. I was extremely disturbed at the conclusion in the report that only 57 per cent of secondary schools have leadership that is good or outstanding.

The comparable figures for previous years suggest that something is seriously wrong with Ofsted judgements this year or that the goalposts have moved in a way that has made it much more difficult for leaders to be judged as doing a good or outstanding job.

Percentage of secondary schools with good or outstanding leadership

Source: Annual Reports of the chief inspector in England, 1998-99 to 2005-06

The comparable figure for college leadership in 2005-06 is also 57 per cent.

It is, to say the least, extremely unlikely that the improvement between 1998 and 2005 has gone into reverse in the last two years. Far more likely is that the fall has been caused by the new Ofsted framework, which automatically gives leaders a poor grade when any aspect of the school is found wanting.

There is also no recognition in the chief inspector's report that the huge increase in responsibilities and workload in the last two years has made it more difficult for school leaders to focus as much of their attention on teaching and learning.

ASCL has told Ofsted clearly that it needs to change its procedures, so that this false impression of the quality of school leadership is more accurately portrayed, both in the annual report and in the reports on individual schools.

Just say no

The Hertfordshire heads have decided enough is enough and have agreed not to deal with a number of items at the county level - completing the Hertfordshire 14-19 prospectus (itself an online nightmare); attempting any work on the new draft admissions code; undertaking any work on 2005-06 school profiles; and co-operating with the new financial management standard.

It is, as I have often stated in these articles, vitally important to keep one's own sense of priorities. To do this, you may need to find ways of reducing the pile on your desk.

Here are five suggestions:

  • Keep teaching and learning at the top of your priorities.

  • Keep some space in your development plan for your school's or college's own priorities.

  • Ensure that workforce remodelling has benefited leaders as much as classroom teachers.

  • Look after your own work-life balance - make a health plan for yourself - more exercise, better food, adequate time for relaxation.

  • Say no to some of the demands placed on you by external bodies.

In wishing you a happy 2007, may I suggest that you include the last of these points in your New Year's resolutions.

John Dunford and Toby Salt of NCSL will host a hotseat discussion on Talk2Learn starting on 22 January on the topic of the workload of school leaders. ASCL members are encouraged to share their experiences here. Go to www.ncsl.org.uk


In tray exercise

ASCL has used the following list of items on leaders' desks with ministers and civil servants to demonstrate just how serious the workload issue is for members.

  • Embedding the new system of teaching and learning responsibilities

  • Preparing for the new performance management regulations

  • Building 14 - 19 strategic area partnerships

  • Introducing the new specialised diplomas

  • Establishing consortia to deal with the consultation on and introduction of extended schools and children centres, draft admissions code, secondary school area reviews, and working on Building Schools for the Future

  • A new system of joint area review visits

  • Involving newly appointed school improvement partners - themselves just coming to terms with the role

  • Increased responsibilities for child protection

  • Criminal records bureau checks on all staff now going back beyond the initial 2002 requirements

  • Fire regulations, nutritional standards, recommendations and health and safety standards in school kitchens

  • Working towards meeting requirements from the new section 52 budgetary statements, the new financial management standards, sixth form funding guidance and PLAMS

  • The Disability Equality Scheme (with little or no support from the local authority)

  • The PLASC is now run three times each year and consumes more senior time each term following year-on-year additions

  • A local authority curriculum analysis return

  • Sustainable schools

  • A local review of SEN resource allocation

  • The school profile has been offline, as has the Ofsted self-evaluation form (SEF)

  • The much-hyped RaiseOnline has been delayed

By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders