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Reducing workload improves teacher wellbeing and has no negative effects on student attainment: A meta-analysis of teacher-led quantitative studies

|FIGURE 1 shows a summary of effect sizes and confidence intervals for: Communication
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6 min read
Richard Churches, Education Development Trust, UK
Robin Hall, Department for Education, UK
Kate Sims, Education Development Trust, UK

In collaboration with Education Development Trust, the Department for Education and Teaching Schools Council, teachers across England conducted quantitative research into the effects of workload reduction. Teachers designed and implemented a range of quantitative studies into the effects of workload reduction on student attainment, teacher wellbeing and teacher time. Research included randomised controlled trials, case-controlled non-randomised controlled trials and cohort studies (comparing current attainment with prior achievement by similar groups).

This article summarises the overall findings, alongside giving examples from three teacher projects. It also points to the potential of such approaches in policy roll-out and definition, as discussed recently at a British Education Research Association presentation (Sims et al., 2021) and in the journal Educational Research and Evaluation (Brown, 2022). A full report and meta-analysis of attainment-related effect sizes is available online at www.gov.uk (Churches, 2020). All teacher projects are also available in a research conference poster format.

Although reducing teacher workload may help to improve teacher retention and wellbeing (DfE, 2018; Foster et al., 2019), a review of the main education databases revealed no prior controlled research into the effects of reducing workload on student outcomes. Conducting this research and involving schools directly in the research process were important because this lack of evidence, in combination with accountability pressures, may be one of the reasons why school leaders are sometimes reluctant to reduce workload, fearing negative effects on student attainment. This may be particularly the case for areas such as lesson planning, data drops and traditional forms of marking and feedback.

Findings from this research suggest that such concerns may be unfounded. Indeed, regarding alternative forms of marking and feedback, more direct feedback in the classroom rather than extensive ‘after the school day’ handwritten marking may be associated with improved student outcomes.

Example 1

St Bartholomew’s CE First School conducted a repeated measures (or within-participant) randomised controlled trial exploring the risks and benefits of reducing lesson planning to a minimum. Classes were randomly allocated to the order in which they experienced either normal practice or lessons with reduced planning. Each phase of the research lasted half a term. There were no negative effects on student progress. Teacher wellbeing was higher in all areas during reduced lesson planning (Davis and Woodley, 2020).

Research approach

Teachers received three days of face-to-face training, with preparatory reading from a research methods textbook (Churches and Dommett, 2016). In addition, there was remote support between the training days and at the end of the project to help with interpretation and writing up of findings. An initial phase involved the use of the school workload reduction toolkit (DfE, 2018/2019) and workload audits to identify the focus for each school’s research. The toolkit is a set of practical resources for school leaders and teachers. It was created by school leaders, serving teachers and other sector experts, together with the Department for Education. The toolkit is currently being updated with more resources and practical tools. Teachers designed, implemented and wrote up their research in a conference poster format. Inferential testing, confidence intervals and effect size calculation were enabled by Excel programmes. 

On completion of the research projects, the attainment data was synthesised in a meta-analysis. Alongside collecting this data, and to assess wellbeing, schools used measures drawn from the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP, 2019): enthusiasm, love of learning, optimism, self-efficacy and workaholism (a measure previously used in clinical practice). Where possible, teachers also collected time-on-task data to ensure that the approaches were genuinely reducing out-of-classroom activity.

Findings

All teacher research included either a parallel control group or a form of quasi-counterfactual data (to compare current attainment with past attainment by similar case-matched students). Unfortunately, post-test data collection was impossible in around 30 per cent of teacher studies, due to the onset of the coronavirus health emergency in early 2020. However, the final analysis was able to include 112 effect sizes from completed studies (N = 10,086). In relation to interpreting the results from the studies overall, the aim was to demonstrate no harm during the period of reduced workload, rather than hypothesise that reducing workload might improve attainment. 

Random effects meta-analysis showed that, across the studies overall, reducing workload was associated with a period of significantly improved student outcomes. In the light of this, an overall hypothesis of no harm was accepted. Separate analyses for different areas of workload reduction also showed associations with improved outcomes during streamlined and more efficient internal communication, reduced data reporting and alternative forms of marking and feedback. There was a non-significant small positive effect size associated with periods of less invasive lesson observation and monitoring (Figure 1).

Where schools measured wellbeing, this improved significantly overall. There were also significant reductions on the workaholism scale (the scale used to assess the extent to which teachers were working too hard) and significant increases in self-efficacy. In relation to time-on-task data, there was a significant reduction in teachers’ time use in the target areas across the programme.

FIGURE 1 shows a summary of effect sizes and confidence intervals for: Communication, Marking and feedback, Data reporting and Lesson observation/monitoring. On a scale from -0.6 to 0.6. 112 effect sizes, N = 10,086.

Potential benefits of switching to alternative forms of marking and feedback

Alternative marking and feedback strategies generated a notable number of moderate or large effect sizes. Strategies involving direct individual feedback in the classroom were most likely to produce larger effects. This is perhaps not surprising, as the real-time process of direct feedback, correction of misconceptions, setting of targets and selection of strategies in response to such feedback may help to trigger and reinforce student metacognition (planning – monitoring – evaluation) (Churches et al., 2017), an area associated with moderate to large positive effects across the large-scale randomised controlled trial literature (EEF, 2021).

Example 2

St Andrew’s School (London South Teaching Schools Alliance) conducted three parallel case-controlled randomised controlled trials in Years 2, 4 and 6. They looked at the extent to which replacing written marking in English with metacognitive learning strategies and live marking impacted on student outcomes and teacher workload. There was a significantly large positive effect on student progress. Staff wellbeing in the intervention group was also higher for all areas. Qualitative data collected alongside the trials supported the interpretation of a positive effect caused by the change of marking strategy (Jamieson and Griffin, 2020).

Use of teacher-led research to support policy roll-out and refinement

Previous research has illustrated the potential of collaborative teacher-led randomised controlled trials to explore the translation of neuroscience findings into classroom practice (Churches et al., 2020) and to develop teacher evidence-based practice (Churches et al., 2018). Multiple planned teacher-led trials, replications and other forms of quantitative school-level research could have potential in adaptive programming and policy roll-out environments – where testing, learning and iteration are necessary to find the right solutions on the ground. This research and other studies have also shown meta-analysis to be an effective way of interpreting such findings.

Example 3

Hilltop Infants and Junior Schools (Boroughs, 2020; Leech, 2020) conducted analyses across a wide range of year groups, looking at the effect of revised whole-school communication approaches. These analyses included looking at teachers’ assessments for reading, writing and mathematics and comparing differences in attainment during the intervention period with prior achievement. They detected no significant negative effects on attainment, with progress in many areas continuing to improve significantly despite workload reduction.

Since the first round of research (2018–2020), education has suffered one of its greatest challenges to teacher workload and wellbeing. Building on the first programme, a second teacher-led research phase is underway, looking at the effects of workload reduction during coronavirus learning recovery. These findings will be available later this year.

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