Workload: the great sleight of hand

Did you know the collection of data reduces your workload?

It is universally the case that the profession rightly bemoans the persistent collection of data in schools, its rise now repeatedly substantiated over a number of years as dragging teachers and principals away from their core business and what they signed up for: teaching and learning, progressing their students and public school communities. It’s a well-researched and evidenced phenomenon, known as the “datafication of the teaching profession” and its insidious impact is being felt around the globe.

While the NSW Government, through its department, has been forced to shift from counting time saved to addressing workload as a result of consistent political embarrassment, the fact remains: four years on from the establishment of the Minister’s reducing administrative burden group, there is no discernable effect on the reduction of workload for teachers or principals.

Quite the contrary.

The Quality Time Action Plan, the latest in glossy brochure initiatives from the Government, claims to be “streamlining administration and improving support for teachers, principals and school-based non-teaching staff”. Its September 2021 update states that a “10 hours per year reduction in administrative burden for teachers through number of improvements over the last three years” has been achieved. I’m confident we can all do the math on that one!

The Quality Time Program mid-year update of July 2022 states: “The initial target set by the Minister for Education is a 20 percent reduction in time spent on low-value administrative tasks by the end of 2022. This equates to 40 hours for teachers, 40 hours for school-based non-teaching staff and 190 hours for principals.” The update claims Check-in assessments contribute to this reduction. I can hear the collective groan as you read this.

Check-in assessments were first offered to schools in 2020 and were embraced at that time. One might ask, why so many schools, particularly primary, embraced such an online assessment given teachers’ overall staunch opposition to the use of standardised online tests such as NAPLAN?

As always, school context is critical. They came at a time when students and schools had just been through significant COVID-19 lockdowns and extended periods of remote learning, particularly in the ‘LGAs of concern’. Teachers were desperate to see where their students were at and how much the remote period had affected their students’ education, their basic skills of literacy and numeracy. As expert professionals they found the online assessment of great use at that point of need, where their normal teaching, learning and assessment cycles and practices were unable to be undertaken, where day to day assessing, feedback and refinement of lessons and programs through face to face teaching could not occur.

They provided teachers and schools with a snapshot of where their students were at. Check-in assessments, then, were voluntary for schools to use, could be used over a period of time, were low stakes when compared to tests like NAPLAN with no My School reporting attached, and facilitated the use of resources developed by expert non-school based teachers to support identified areas of need. It was an online assessment that suited the times, to assist teachers to focus on getting their students back on track and attempt to support teachers to address areas of weakness on students’ return. Some argued it was truly diagnostic.

In 2022, the Check-in assessment represents another beast entirely and Federation absolutely refutes the claim that it has reduced workload and administrative burdens for schools and teachers. That it is flagged as an initiative that saves time is ludicrous. Check-in assessments are now mandatory for all schools for students from years 3–9. They are to be conducted twice yearly and require an assessment coordinator and training on administering the test. They, of course, sit outside teachers’ scope and sequence and other assessment schedules aligned to syllabus outcomes. They require reorganisation of classes, timetables, disruption to current programs, technical requirements to administer, provision of laptops, headphones and of course simultaneous functioning of the system platforms, to list but a few.

No longer low stakes, they are now aligned to the School Success Model and system wide targets for reading and numeracy, the results of students tracked through PLAN 2, the National Literacy and Numeracy Progressions and all other data collected on our students.

These Check-in assessments sit alongside other mandatory tests that have been systematically introduced or expanded over the past two years, including the Year 1 Phonics test, Tell Then From Me surveys, and further changes are planned for Best Start for Kindergarten in 2023. Schools have been provided with fact sheets and toolkits, implemented in their own time of course! The analysis of the data, implications for teaching and learning, as well as refinement of programs and pedagogy is on top of the current workload crippling our teachers.

It is but one assessment.

This serves as yet another example of a government that fails to respect or understand the work of teachers and principals in schools.

Currently there are 65 initiatives and pilots underway in schools, which encompass the collection of surveys, feedback and copious lists of tasks and data.

Unsurprisingly, they all take time. Time that pulls those involved away from teaching and learning and meeting student and community need.

Federation will not applaud initiatives that increase workloads and deepen the pressure on teachers and principals – such as administering new tests and surveys across the system such as Check-in assessments, Phonics tests, Tell Them From Me surveys, the expansion of NAPLAN testing and so much more – which seek to feed the insatiable appetite for data collection by a government and department that is only interested in measurement, which assists in advancing its own agendas for public education.

The mandating of systems targets through the Strategic Improvement Plan (SIP) preferences NAPLAN data, practice tests and the narrowing of curriculum at the expense of our students’ learning in a broad and inclusive curriculum. Such practices must be avoided at all costs.

Release time of six minutes per day, if you’re lucky, to implement a “30 year curriculum reform” on top of a host of other failed policies that have no connection to the real work and voices of teachers in the classroom or relevance to the teaching profession, will not cut it either.

Ignoring the growing body of evidence, including the landmark Gallop Inquiry, and continuing to add more onto teachers and principals’ plates, while simultaneously taking nothing significant away or providing any meaningful time for teachers and principals to do their core work, sees the profession where it is today.

It is little wonder that on a daily basis the teacher shortage worsens and our students continue to pay the price for the Government’s inaction.