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Less can be more: Rethinking the use of time in schools

Written By: Victoria Cook
4 min read

This research summary was produced as part of a project funded by The Comino Foundation.


Original research article

Connolly V (2023) Less Can Be More: Rethinking The Use Of Time In Schools. The Buckingham Journal of Education 4(1): 73–92.



Policymakers and researchers have repeatedly disregarded teachers’ calls for increased non-contact time, or less scheduled teaching. This paper explores the relationship between secondary teachers’ workload, GCSE results and teacher retention using longitudinal data from England’s School Workforce Census (SWC). Results suggest that increasing departmental non-contact time for teachers is likely to have a positive impact both on teacher retention and GCSE performance for that department. Furthermore, findings suggest that decreasing allocated instruction time for students is not detrimental to either the school budget or GCSE performance. 

The research underpinning this summary

Although workload is a complex, multi-layered construct, workload volume is often measured by time. Researchers have explored the links between teachers’ workload and time pressures and the impact on teacher stress, retention and pupil attainment. In numerous studies, teaching professionals have reported a lack of time as one of the main contributors to workload, decreasing job satisfaction and commitment to the profession. This call for more time is supported by theory which suggests that improvements to teachers’ workload can lead to improvements in collaboration, planning, staff morale etc, all of which are thought to correlate with improved student results.

In light of this theory, the research poses two main questions:

  1. Do lower contact hours relate to better school performance/results?
  2. Are teachers more likely to quit teaching, or to move schools, with increased contact time and workload complexity? (p. 79)


Workload complexity is considered in relation to four variables:

  1. The number of subjects on a teacher’s timetable,
  2. The number of National Curriculum levels, or year groups, taught,
  3. Whether a teacher taught an assignment in the previous year,
  4. The percentage of assignments of short duration (≤one hour). (p. 80)


An ‘assignment’ refers to a specific subject/year group combination. For example, a teacher teaching Year 9 history again after having taught Year 9 history the year before.

The SWC is completed by all state schools and contains timetable data for 75 per cent of secondary teachers that can be matched to school-level value-added scores for each department (the measure of progress made from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4). The author explored the relationship between GCSE performance in different subjects and average contact hours for each department using a regression model using data from 2010 to 2014. Changes to assessment data means that a longer timeframe was not possible. The author also explored the relationship between the probability that a teacher will move/leave and their workload and workload complexity in other regression models. All regression models considered a range of possible biases, mitigating for these where possible, and the robustness of the results were checked.

The results of the analysis, which are highly statistically significant, indicate that departments with lower average contact hours achieve better results. The results are equivalently opposite to estimates of GCSE gains arising from additional learning time for students. This suggests that if a school decreases students’ learning time in a bid to improve staff non-contact time, the net effect on results is likely to be zero (all other things being held equal). 

Furthermore, a statistically significant relationship is found between contact hours and workload retention, with a greater probability that those teachers with more contact hours will move school. These findings vary by department, with the strongest effect shown for English teachers. Workload complexity also affects the probability of a teacher moving school. The effect of each new assignment was strongest for mathematics teachers and teachers in departments beyond English and science. The effect of teaching additional year groups or additional subjects was also linked to the probability of moving school, although again the extent of this varied by department.

Amongst those leaving the state system entirely, again a highly statistically significant relationship is seen between contact hours and workload complexity, with variations between departments. This non-linear relationship is complicated, and is perhaps most easily illustrated through an example of two ‘average’ science teachers, in ‘average’ schools:


  • Teacher D: teaches GCSE groups Years 10 and 11, over three sciences. They also teach PHSE, for a total of 16 hours per week with no short assignments (i.e. teaching a particular subject/year group combination for only a few hours per week)
  • Teacher E: teaches Years 7 through 13, for one science subject only and totals 26 hours. Fifteen per cent of this timetable is made up of short assignments
  • The probability of Teacher D leaving the State sector is four per cent, while it is 9.4 per cent for Teacher E. (p. 87).


Impact on practice

The findings indicate that departments with more non-contact time are likely to achieve better results and retain their staff longer. If such time may be created by reducing students’ allocated instruction time without negatively impacting school performance or budget, schools should be empowered to rethink their use of time to facilitate curriculum enrichment, improve student well-being and support professional development. It is also important for those undertaking timetabling decisions in schools to understand how workload in conjunction with workload complexity affects retention, underscoring the need to consult with colleagues during the timetabling process.

Amidst a lack of policy action on contact time, some schools have already begun to rethink their use of time, offering extra protected time for staff CPD (School 21, London), large-scale group work (Doncaster XP) and early closures on Fridays to boost well-being and morale (Forest Gate School, London). Perhaps, in this case, less can be more?

Reflection questions

  • How might you rethink the use of time in your context?
  • How can you reliably measure those outcomes?

Further reading

The OECD’s analysis of 2018 PISA data concludes that the issue of instructional time is complex, and it is more important how available time in school is spent rather than the total amount of time spent in school.

  • Connolly V (2022) Can Less be More? Workload and Workload Complexity in English Secondary Schools and their Relationship with Student Attainment and Teacher Retention. (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. Available at: (accessed 15 April 2024).
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