Reducing Bureaucracy in Education

It was  Cyril Northcote who came up with the adage known as Parkinson’s Law which appeared as the first sentence of a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal in recent meetings with teachers (and managers) who complain that their time is taken up with trivial and meaningless bureaucratic tasks.  So perhaps it’s time to step back from our practice and reflect – with some rigour – upon the way in which we conduct our business? Many of the tasks and jobs that we all have to complete have been layered – one on top of another – as one initiative goes and another one comes in – yet the associated practices which came into practice with each initiative remain. 

At a time when we are looking for efficiencies in every walk of life we need to challenge anything we do which does not add value to the central purpose of our job – in our case to improve the outcomes for children and young people. 

Why have we created bureaucratic processes which overload our system? I reckon the first reason is that we often “over engineer” our systems.  Over engineering is when we construct something way beyond the tolerances required to fulfil the object’s task, e.g. we build a bridge which can carry a weight ten times heavier than anything that it will ever be required to carry.  The associated costs in additional materials and  construction time are not required and can be regarded as waste.  And so it often is in educational bureaucracies that we develop solutions to problems/issues which go way beyond what is actually required to solve the actual problem. Perhaps because we don’t trust each other?

The second characteristic of our system is that  we often create a solution to meet a time specific problem, e.g. we establish a meeting of people to address a particular problem – we solve the problem that generated the cause for the meeting but the meetings continue because we don’t have the confidence to stop doing it.

So what might we do to reduce bureaucracy at all levels in education – from Government down to the individual classroom, and every level in between?

The first thing to do is to reflect upon our practice – not because we want to stop doing everything but because we want to spend our time doing those things which make a positive difference to children’s lives. Part of that process must be to reflect upon the cost benefit.  I’m not encouraging here a “know the cost of everything and value of nothing” approach, but simply to work out what something costs in terms of time, money (often directly related to time) and the associated value. For example, a weekly 30 minute meeting of principal teachers in an average secondary school along with members from the senior management team equates to £18,000- £20,000 a year. Such a meeting may have been instituted for very valid reasons a few years ago but has continued long beyond its actual purpose and value.  Similar exercises can be carried out for every bureaucratic process and  procedure.  However, before we disappear into a further bureaucratic vortex it’s best to start small and select those areas where we reckon we can make quick wins – and at the same time release people to undertake more valuable activities directly related to improving the educational process.

So, having identified some processes of dubious value what next? There would seem to be two alternatives 1. STOP doing it (does the sky fall in?); 2. REDESIGN the process, i.e. do it “just well enough” (rather than over engineer) or come up with an alternative solution to the problem but which streamlines and simplifies the process.

The first of these solutions, i.e. to stop doing something – cannot be left to personal preference, unless it is a bureaucratic process which you have instituted as part of your personal behaviour.   However, a key stage in such reflection is to try to understand why we do things in a particular way, i.e. what is the purpose of the process? (I would also suggest that a bit of research into the history of when and why it was originally introduced can be exceptionally helpful here). Having identified the process consider the risk of stopping doing it, e.g. would stopping doing it put children’s health and safety at risk?   I know that to some this sounds like a recipe for anarchy but the key here is a collective analysis and shared decision making process.

So if stopping is not alternative perhaps the process itself could be redesigned? As above, the starting point should be the purpose of the process.  So often a process have been introduced within a particular time and culture which is no longer relevant.  That may certainly be the case with some of our processes which have been introduced at time when economic considerations did not feature in the decision making process. Once again the key to redesigning processes is to see it a collective process.  Remember one hour saved each week by every teacher in a school of fifty teachers over the course of a year is equivalent to £75,000-£80,000 – or two teachers. Now that would make a difference!  Good luck.

4 thoughts on “Reducing Bureaucracy in Education

  1. Don,

    Without agreeing with your costs analysis, you’re right that there is much spent on tasks in education which are not designed for education. I’d like every educator and his or her leaders to be able to justify, from first principles, every action they take and every penny they spend. It should be easy.

    Is it?


  2. Nick

    Thanks for your comment. No it isn’t easy. That’s why I suggested that we try to avoid the “know the cost of everything and value of nothing” approach. However, there are so many things that have been introduced into education at a bureaucratic level that they get laid down – one upon the other – in much the same way as sedimentary rock. Although looking at how much things cost can be a useful starting point it’s much more to do with questioning the value of the activity in educational terms.


  3. Don,

    Then we’re in agreement on challenging ideas, activities, initiatives (which I pronounce with the emphasis on the syllable after “inner-“) in terms of their effect – you say value – on the education of our children.

    Are we in agreement that there is much principle missing from what we do – and that with better leaders (by which I mean men and women of principle and courage) – this principle might return?



  4. Don,

    I am currently PT and am following the SQH. I read with interest your article in the TES this week.

    I have always been a believer in doing enough. I would find it impossible to cover all the things I do if I didn’t. However there is sometimes a thin line of judgement between doing enough and occasionally failing to do enough. At these times I come clean, admit the mistake and correct the problem.

    This approach suits me but it is not an approach I see employed by many teachers. I have found an unwillingness amongst colleagues to run the risk of making a public mistake. This might account for why teachers like to “over engineer.” Unfortunately it also stifles creativity.

    From my past experience of working in private business it’s not the mistakes that matter but how you correct them. Indeed, when dealing with clients, correcting a mistake well, helps build an even stronger relationship with them.



Comments are closed.