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Jake O'Keeffe, co-founder of Atom Learning
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Jake O'Keeffe, co-founder of Atom Learning looks at the implications of a report from UCL on teacher workload barely reducing. He argues technology could provide the solutiion to this intractable problem:

A recent Institute on Education (IOE) report from UCL, "New evidence on teachers’ working hours in England" focused on the barely changing teacher workload.

Much of it will resonate with teachers across the UK: teachers work hard.

What may come as a surprise is that teachers have always worked hard; in fact, the median working week has not changed significantly over the last twenty years. For policy makers struggling to stem the tide of teachers leaving the profession, this is important.

Teachers cite workload as a key reason why they are leaving the profession but, as this report shows, it’s not just the number of hours worked that can be the cause for the fall in retention rates.

No doubt, teachers would prefer to work fewer hours, and so they should – with a quarter of teachers working sixty hour weeks – burn out is inevitable; first and foremost, though, it is the type of work, lesson preparation, marking and admin, that must be addressed.

Radical action

Government is not ignorant of this, though their solutions have failed because they are insufficiently radical: toolkits to manage workload, with surveys and multiple steps of evaluation, feel like more; not less bureaucracy.

The recent announcement to increase salaries for newly qualified teachers, while welcome to teachers I’m sure, is missing the point. Few teachers go into teaching for the money; they enter the profession because they want to teach.

Paying more to junior staff will not help long-term teacher retention and is not a long-term solution: salary increases motivate for months at best.

Government do need to pay teachers fairly, but paying teachers more alone will not improve retention rates. The way we teach in the UK needs to change radically.

Automating admin

Lesson planning and marking, frequently noted as the least favourite parts of teachers’ jobs, are well suited for automation.

Being well-prepared for a lesson and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of individual students in your class is vital to being a good teacher; spending hours collating resources and manually determining individual attainments is not.

Automating both could reduce teachers’ workload by circa fifteen hours per week and significantly improve teachers’ day-to-day experience. Combining high quality teaching materials with adaptive learning means computers can generate a personalised lesson for every student in the class in a matter of minutes, not hours, and provide teachers with real-time updates on students’ strengths and weaknesses with suggested follow up interventions.

Mass adoption of technology based classroom solutions would not only reduce teacher workload; it would standardise the base level of education in schools, ensuring all students had access to a minimum level of high quality education, going a long way to reducing education inequality in UK schools.

Government support

If mass adoption of technology in schools can significantly improve teacher retention rates, what can government do to accelerate the process?

I would not advocate government select platforms to impose upon schools. Different schools require different solutions that will never be satisfied by a single product. At any rate, competition is good for the market; technology decays so rapidly that all technology providers need to continuously improve their products to remain current.

Nonetheless, there are some things government can do:

  1. Firstly, government could consider subsidising the cost of technology solutions for schools in the same way green initiatives have been subsidised for end-buyers; in the long run it will save the government money, stymie the outflow of teachers and result in a better educated workforce.
  2. Secondly, government should consider how it can set standards of quality and format for digital teaching materials: it would ensure online content meets a base level of excellence and would facilitate easy transfer of content across technological platforms, resulting in increased innovation in education technology and flexibility for teachers.
  3. Finally, government should consider how they can educate teachers on technologies so that teachers can make informed decisions about the nature of the technology that they are being sold: AI is a nebulous term used far more frequently than it should be.

The IOE’s research provides strong evidence that government intervention to reduce workload has failed so far and that a more radical solution is required.

Technology is that solution, minimising the least enjoyable aspects of teachers’ jobs and reducing the overall hours worked so that burnout is reduced and teachers can once again focus on what attracted them to the profession in the first place: teaching.

Jake O'Keeffe, Co-Founder of Atom Learning

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