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Worried about workload? Leadership, preparation and progression is of greater significance

Written by: Jake Shepherd
4 min read

As a trainee teacher, the profession’s reputation for extreme workloads certainly preceded itself. Whilst this reputation is somewhat well earned, I must admit to having exaggerated my own workload in the past when looking for a convenient if not believable excuse to avoid meeting non-teaching friends and family. Of course, this is not to trivialise the very real issue of unmanageable workloads, which is ‘one of the most commonly cited drivers for teachers leaving the profession’ (DfE, 2019a, p. 3). Instead, this perspective on research considers Dr Sam Sims’ paper in the British Educational Research Journal, which offers actionable advice on ‘aspects of the school environment which school leaders can focus on in order to improve retention’ (Sims, 2020, p. 302).

Before reflecting on how Sims’ (2020) research can inform school and classroom culture, let’s recap Ovenden-Hope and Brimacombe’s (2019) article in The Profession (the Chartered College’s annual publication for early career teachers), which is a good primer on issues of workload and wellbeing. The authors effectively elevated the issue of teacher wellbeing to one of key concern, and with 33 per cent of staff leaving the profession within their first five years of teaching it has become unsustainable for the profession to simply put these issues to one side (DfE, 2019a). Ovenden-Hope and Brimacombe (2019) argue that ‘understanding and supporting teacher wellbeing in schools… is essential for a sustained healthy learning environment’, which the authors relate to students’ learning outcomes. I can attest to the importance of support, which I fortunately found in abundance during my initial teacher training (ITT), but I know also of the struggles that my peers contended with this year and how this illustrates the vital need for strong leadership from both professional tutors within schools and course convenors at universities.

Ovenden-Hope and Brimacombe (2019) place a heavy emphasis on workload and encourage NQTs to speak up about different expectations in workload. The authors also call upon those who support early career teachers to share these realistic expectations. Interestingly, since their article was published, results from the 2019 teacher workload survey (TWS), which surveyed over 20,000 teachers from 449 schools in England, reported a fall in workload when compared to the 2016 TWS. The 2019 TWS shows that ‘self-reported working hours in the reference week for all teachers and middle leaders in 2019 was 49.5 hours, down 4.9 hours from the 54.4 hours reported in 2016’ (DfE, 2019b, p. 3). Despite this good news, around 70 per cent of primary school teachers and 90 per cent of secondary school teachers who were surveyed in the latest TWS reported that workload was a ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ serious problem (DfE, 2019b).

Sam Sims’ recent paper is a worthwhile read when discussing school and classroom culture because, beyond recognising the severe problem of teacher shortages resulting from poor retention, the author identifies three aspects of teacher working conditions that are ‘directly within the control of school leaders and are indirectly affected by many government policies’, offering ‘actionable insights for those looking to improve staff satisfaction and retention’ (2020, p. 318). To my surprise, none of the three aspects were workload-related, despite its inclusion in the author’s analysis. Instead, leadership, preparation and progression were stated to be of greater (statistical) significance when regression analysis was used to assess ‘the relationships between teachers’ working conditions, job satisfaction and retention’ (Sims, 2020, p. 315).

With both Ovenden-Hope and Brimacombe (2019) and Sims (2019) reinforcing the relationship between staff turnover and student attainment, whereby higher staff turnover leads to lower student attainment, issues surrounding school and classroom culture clearly have repercussions for the whole school community. With government strategies such as the school workload reduction toolkit (DfE, 2019c) seeking to address the issue of teacher workload, Sims’ (2020) paper is a timely prompt for practitioners to examine other aspects of school culture: namely leadership and progression.

Reflecting on this ITT year, and for more experienced colleagues perhaps their career within the profession, I have never known a time when school leadership has been so vital or so tested. The coronavirus pandemic has heightened teachers’ standing within society and highlighted the premium of localised leadership and expertise when it failed to materialise centrally. Moving forward, we should strive for our leadership skills and home-grown expertise accruing a greater reputation than our workloads. Let us start by rightly celebrating where schools get it right, such as practitioner-led continuing professional development (CPD), whilst also broadening teaching’s appeal by showing how leadership is honed through careers in schools, and not just in boardrooms or on battlefields. I first heard about practitioner-led CPD from Vic Goddard, Co-Principal at Passmores Academy in Harlow, who explained to me first-hand how and why it had been adopted. Anna Szpakowska’s work on developing school-wide feedback practice, showcased by Whole Education (2020), illustrates what I believe can be reaped by Sims’ (2020) re-orientation towards leadership and progression if schools start sowing these seeds today.

My perspective on research began by quipping about our profession’s reputation for extreme workloads, and whilst I suppose that this varies depending on school culture, it is my hope that school leaders will continue to refine school cultures in order to collectively raise our profession’s reputation. The Chartered College’s Teachers’ Manifesto (Chartered College of Teaching, 2019) highlights the ‘negativity surrounding teaching and teachers’ and the need to reverse negative narratives around teaching. As a soon-to-be NQT, I hope that during the proceeding years we will witness a cultural sea-change around leadership and opportunities for progression within the profession, especially amongst early career teachers.


Chartered College of Teaching (2019) Teachers’ Manifesto. Available at: (accessed 23 April 2020).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019a) Reducing workload: Supporting teachers in the early stages of their career. Available at: (accessed 23 April 2020).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019b) Teacher workload survey 2019 research brief. Available at: (accessed 23 April 2020).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019c) School workload reduction toolkit. Available at: (accessed 23 April 2020).

Ovenden-Hope T and Brimacombe K (2019) Teacher wellbeing and workload: Why a work-life balance is essential for the teaching profession. The Profession. Available at: (accessed 23 April 2020).

Sims S (2020) Modelling the relationships between teacher working conditions, job satisfaction and workplace mobility. British Educational Research Journal 46(2): 301 – 320.

Whole Education (2020) Feedback for growth at Passmores Academy. Available at: (accessed 23 April 2020).

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