Will the Quality Time Action Plan reduce teacher workload?

By Meghan Stacey, Scott Fitzgerald, Mihajla Gavin, Susan McGrath-Champ and Rachel Wilson

Teachers want more time for lesson planning, not less.

Last week, the NSW Department of Education released the Quality Time Action Plan, intended to “simplify administrative practices in schools”. Having highlighted the concerning growth in administrative workload in schools in a report based on a survey of more than 18,000 teachers for the NSW Teachers Federation in 2018, we were excited to hear about this development. 

A way forward for reducing administrative workload?

The Plan provides a commitment to “freeing up time”, through a targeted “reduction of 40 hours of low-value administrative tasks per teacher per year”. Administrative work was the overriding concern for teachers in our workload survey, with more than 97% of teachers reporting an increase in administrative requirements in the five prior years. Further research shows that the heavy workload of teachers pre-pandemic was intensified by COVID19 in 2020. As researchers in the field and advocates for the important work of teachers, we find it encouraging to see tangible efforts made to address teacher workload.

According to the Plan, issues with administration are to be addressed through six “opportunity areas”: 1) curriculum resources and support, 2) assessment and reporting to parents and carers, 3) accreditation, 4) processes and support services, 5) extracurricular activities, and 6) data collection and analysis. Some of these areas, especially data collection and analysis, resonate with what we heard from teachers in our 2018 survey. And importantly, some of the actions in the Action Plan do seem to provide tangible reductions in the time teachers spend on this kind of work, such as automating data processing that was previously manual. 

Avoiding the narrowing of teachers’ work

But other target areas of the Plan were more surprising to us, particularly those around curriculum. The Plan acknowledges that “skilled programming and lesson planning are a critical part of teaching” – but also states that “this task can be quite time consuming”. It offers to improve “the accessibility and quality of teacher resources” to “save hours of time teachers previously used creating and searching for content”. We’re not the only ones who were surprised by this inclusion – we noted plenty of social media discussion from teachers about it last Friday after the plan was released to them. 

We don’t have access to all of the data upon which the Department is basing its Plan. Maybe there are teachers who have called for more assistance in programming and lesson planning. There is, to our knowledge, no published research suggesting that this is a problematic workload area for teachers, although it has been a noted challenge in relation to conversion to remote teaching during the pandemic. This Plan strategy does seem to be at odds with the findings of our survey that teachers’ most valued activity, the one that they saw as most important and necessary, was “planning and preparation of lessons”. Similarly, teachers reported wanting more time for “developing new units of work and/or teaching programs”. They did not want to do less of this kind of work, in contrast to what the Plan seems to propose. 

According to policy analyst and scholar Carol Bacchi, policy documents always serve to create or give shape to policy problems. That is, for Bacchi, any ‘solution’ given in a policy is actively constructing a particular kind of ‘problem’ to be addressed. So it’s interesting that the Plan constructs class preparation as part of the teacher workload ‘problem’. This suggests that the problem isn’t that teachers need more time to do their preparation, but that the way in which they have been preparing in the past has been inefficient, with the solution to instil a more centralised approach. While teachers may be appreciative of such resources, it’s not what they advocated in our survey, where the top recommended strategy was to reduce face-to-face teaching time to facilitate a closer focus on collaboration for planning, programming, assessing and reporting. Similarly, we note that the NSW Teachers Federation salaries and conditions campaign launched last week, ‘More Than Thanks’, is – along with higher salaries – calling for an increase in preparation time of two hours a week, to enable this kind of work. 

There are also other interesting framings of the teacher workload problem in the Plan. For example, the support around data collection and analysis seems to be mostly about ‘streamlining’ existing requirements rather than removing them. This tells us that the perceived problem is not the data itself but how it is collected and reported. 

Lesson planning is core to teachers’ work 

Given that the Action Plan’s intended focus is on ‘administration’, this makes us wonder what ‘administration’ in teaching is understood to include. What is considered ‘administration’ and therefore peripheral, and what is considered ‘teaching’ and therefore core? This is quite a high-stakes question. Because if we position some aspects of teachers’ work as simply ‘administration’, then we run the risk of sidelining work that teachers value as part of their professional identity, such as the creative and intellectual work of lesson planning. 

We are wary of any policy approach which re-purposes concerns over workload as an opportunity to control or limit the central pedagogical labour of teachers. Reforms which chip away at the core work of teachers, where both societal contribution and teacher satisfaction is most concentrated, run the risk of damaging the profession and the education system it carries.

This may not be what happens under the Quality Time Action Plan. But given recent concerns over the commercialisation of education data and resourcing, it is worth asking whether it would be the profession itself providing centralised programming and planning resources, or if this would be outsourced. 

Teachers’ voices matter: give your feedback 

There is an opportunity to provide feedback on the Action Plan. We encourage teachers – those who live these matters each and every day – to fill in the feedback form. Workload issues are as complex as they are important, and we heartily welcome the ongoing efforts of all stakeholders to effectively support the people who staff our schools. 

Rachel Wilson is Associate Professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions.

Meghan Stacey is a former high school English and drama teacher and current lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey

Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

Scott Fitzgerald is an associate professor and discipline lead of the People, Culture and Organisations discipline group in the School of Management at Curtin University. Scott’s research presently covers two main areas: the changing nature of governance, professionalism and work in the education sector.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.