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.

The Great Dictator

Great dictator 1024.jpg

Spot the likeness?

Actually I’m talking about a skill I’ve developed over the last few years which probably saves my life.

I’m referring to the ability to dictate correspondence. I was out of the office all day yesterday and then had a meeting from 5.00-6.00, followed by a parents’ event at a primary school.

When I rolled into the office today I had over 80 e-mails and letters to respond to and also write a report for the council. In the past this task would have taken me close on 4 hours. However, thanks to the wonders of digital technology, the fact that I can now dictate a letter or e-mail without hesitation, repetition or deviation, and the support of an exceptionally adept and supportive PA in Mary Horsburgh means that I can get through such a task in under an hour. This meant that I was able to get out of the office at 9.15 to visit Preston Lodge for the morning instead of being stuck in my office.

Where do I find the time?

I had a fascinating discussion with some headteachers recently about the time they spend on their jobs, the difficulty of their jobs and challenge that such time pressures and other demands present.

I know I’m presenting a significant challenge by asking headteachers to spend up to two days a week focusing upon the teaching process by observing what’s going on in their schools’ classrooms. The obvious response is “where do I find the time?”

So what are the personal outcomes of such pressures? – 60-80 hour working weeks ; 4-5 hours sleep a night; disrupted sleep patterns were not uncommon – what sort of work/life balance is this? – is it any wonder that people don’t want to become head teachers?

So what are some of the expectations which headteachers have to live up to? (in no particular order):

Have a high profile in and around the school means that you undertake duties such as dinner duty, break time patrol, stair duty, detention duty, gate duty, bus duty

Evening work connected with parents’ evenings; community meetings; parents’ council meetings or school events – usually meaning that you have worked through from 7.30am – 9.00pm – on occasions up to three times a week

Open door policy means that you are often disrupted when trying to complete a task – meaning that you either have to do it when everybody has gone for the day, take it home or get in even earlier the next day before anyone else – that’s why headteachers are usually in first and leave last

Correspondence – mail and e-mail are never ending with requests for surveys, responses to the authority, government or other agencies, requests/queries from parents or the  community can fill a day themselves

Managing the consequences of pupil misbehaviour can take up huge chunks of time, with interviews, investigations, phone calls, parental meetings and reporting back to teachers all arising from one incident;

Financial management can be a big burden – even with a business manager – with worries arising from discrepancies causing sleepless nights

Personnel issues ranging from grievances, capabilty, competence and recruitment and associated paperwork are tasks which regularly require significant attention

Meetings outwith school can take up large amounts of time in a week – as the school’s major representative you are often required to attend

Writing policies, plans, letters to parents, newsletters, speeches

Analysing attainment data and the subsequent meetings with principal teachers or teachers

Completing the school improvement paperwork i.e. Planning, self- evaluation and monitoring

Timetabling and curriculum issues are significant issues at certain times of the year – especially if the headteacher is the timetabler

Complaint handling involves investigation, responding and on occasions repeated meetings

Reviewing forward plans from teachers and departments

Requests/demands from parents to see the headteacher “I won’t be fobbed off with anyone else”

Meetings with the senior management team, principal teachers, and staff and individual meetings with senior management colleagues

Teaching can also feature on some headteachers list of duties as they like to maintain credibility with colleagues and maintain contact with the classroom by taking on a class for the year, of course a teaching headteacher in a small school has no such option.

The question which jumps off the page for me here is – “Is it reasonable to expect any person to undertake such a range of competing and cumulatively impossible demands?”

The key driver for this review must be the well-being of our headteachers.

In my next post on this topic I’ll try to explore how we (it needs to be a collective solution) try to create some time within such a pressured existence to be involved in the kind of work that really makes an difference to learning and teaching for children and colleagues.

Getting Things Done

As readers of my log will be aware we are placing a huge focus upon developing leadership skills within East Lothian. However, we must not forget that sometimes people’s ability to lead effectively is seriously compromised by the challenge provided by the huge array of day-to-day managerial tasks.

To support school Head Teacher’s and Depute Head Teacher’s in their managerial roles, Rob Lewis has been running some informal workshop sessions on the concepts of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” These sessions illustrate how this personal productivity system can help alleviate stress caused by the modern day complexity of “work” and get people focussed and “in their zone” when they need to.

The sessions are a useful way to informally share personal experiences and tips/techniques between staff – an opportunity to openly discuss how people define, organise and then do their “work”. We all find our own systems to keep us organised and focussed, but we don’t necessarily tend to share the application of these.
There is great potential in continuing the learning in a virtual environment. Rob will be setting up an area on East Lothian Council’s e-learning webite – LearnNet – for HT’s and DHT’s who are interested in looking at the application of Getting Things Done and sharing their own tips and experiences with others in a similar role. LearnNet is a great medium for learning and development – it has some powerful support features for those accessing the material.

Our thanks to Rob for offering these valuable sessions – the feedback has been exceptional.

Public Service


I’d like to challenge those who denigrate those of us who decide to work in the public sector. I think the vast majority of people I work with are driven by a sense of service to the public good, i.e. public service!! I find it offensive when suggestions are made that there is something lazy and complacent about those of us in public service. I’d challenge anyone to show how our practice is inferior to “private” sector work. I would never talk down the challenges facing those in working in the private sector – why is it acceptable the other way round? What do you think?

This morning saw the first
Admin’ Conference. Over 130 administrative support staff from schools and the department attanded a full programme. The event had had been orgainsed by Gillian Reilly and Richard Parker and reps from each of the clusters. Alan Blackie opened the event with a welcome and I followed up with a brief overview of our vision for education in East Lothian. I made the following points:

1. I started off by reinforcing the focus of our all our jobs, i.e. to make a positive difference to children’s life chances. This is the unifying factor for all 1300 members of the education department and I don’t think we can ever over-emphasise it.

2. I then mentioned the idea of trust and the fact that we know that most people just want to their jobs as well as possible. We want to establish a culture in all our schools to enable this.

3. I emphasised that the only difference between me (Head of Education) and any admin’; support member of staff is only in terms of accountablity and responsibility. Aside from these factors we are members of the same taeam and on the same level – there is no place in East Lothian for any notion of different status groups – I’m committed to challenging this notion wherever it arises – there are occasions when some members of staff (sometimes because they are under pressure) do not treat admin’ staff with the respect they deserve.

4. A lot of admin’ duties include the submission of data and infromation. I tried to explain how important this is to us if we are to “know” our schools and be able to measure progress.


5. I concluded by challenging those who denigrate those of us who decide to work in the public sector. I think the vast majority of people I work with are driven by a sense of service to the public good, i.e. public service!! I find it offensive when suggestions are made that there is something lazy and complacent about those of us in public service. I’d challenge anyone to show how our practice is inferior to “private” sector work. I would never talk down the challenges facing those in working in the private sector – why is it acceptable the other way round? What do you think?

The rest of the morning was taken up by seminars and presentations – I must mention
Elizabeth Clark who spoke to us about communication – what a performance!! The feedback for the event seemed very positive.

From there to speak to the East Lothian Music Instructors. I wanted to let them know how much we value their work but also to explore anything we might do to improve their effectiveness. we came up with anumber of ideas and I'll be trying to take them forwards over the next few months.

Then caught the feedback session for all staff at Preston Lodge High School about Accessibility. I thought the staff made a number of valid points but the points which I made
yesterday would still apear to be valid.

Giving shape

9.00-12.00 Meeting with Education Officers. Main item on the agenda was our Service Improvement Plan. This is a key document in shaping the direction of education in East Lothian as schools must take account of a series of obligations which reflect national legislation and local priorities. We have been developing a proportionate approach towards school development planning, i.e. where a school is clearly meeting any of the obligations identified in the Service Improvement Plan it need not feature in its plan. We are also keen that schools retain 15% headroom in ther plan for the coming year, which will give some space to tackle issues as they arise – which is often the case in reality.

We used the
Task Management Tracker (example) for the first time to monitor progress in January – it proved a very effective way of monitoring progress, see links –
Statement of intent;
Task Management Tracker background;
Ganntt charts

Yvonne Binks gave us a brief presentation at the start of the meeting about her work for the SEED to promote
Better Behaviour – Better Learning This could link very well with our on-going deliberations relating to the shape of our
emerging teaching and learning strategy as it provides an entry point for schools and teachers to develop their progress with a view to better engaging children

12.00 Met Gillian Reilly and Richard Parker to find out more about the Admin conference they have been organising along with a committee of colleagues.. The event is the first of its kind in East Lothian and will have over 130 admin support staff from schools and the department taking part this coming Wednesday. Thanks to all involved. Admin staff play such an important role in education and yet are all too often not given the recogition they deserve. For many parents they are the first point of contact and from a personal point of view I couldn’t do, or have done, my job without their support. I know its the same for all my colleagues.

Out to Musselburgh Grammar School for 1.00 to observe an enterprising event for Musselburgh Primary Schools.

Back for 3.00 to meet some parents.

4.00 Met with a colleague to provide some feedback from an interview.

Visiting specialists

9.30-10.30 Met with Les Ritchie from Payroll and Carolyn Walker from Personnel to explore how we might be able to improve the quality of infromation we receive from schools. There is a problem with the accuracy of paperwork coming in from some schools: Are the forms too complex?; are people not taking enough time over completing the forms?; can we reduce workload?

The problem is that payroll and personnel depend on accurate information from schools. It’s impossible to action changes to people’s pay unless it’s based on accurate and timeous information. Some schools feel this work should be doone by someone else but payroll and personnel can’t do anything until information is received I spoke to Rob Lewis this afternoon about the possibility of developing e-learning systems for things like form filling – might ask the admin staff on the 15th Feb.

11.00-12.00 Met the chair of a school board to discuss some issues which were causing concern for the board. I tihink it’s important that parents feel they acan approach the department. This was always my approach at school and I see my job here as being no different, although the first point of contact will always be the school.

12.00-1.00 Managed to get round to see my mum – it’s been nearly two weeks (oops)

1.00 – 1.30 Phonecalls and correspondence

1.30-2.00 Maureen Jobson

2.00-3.15 Ronnie Summers to discuss the draft Musselburgh Inspection Report

3.15-3.45 Alison Wishart

4.00-5.00 Met the visiting specialists. This wasn’t an easy meeting as I had to to explain the actions we were taking to break the link between visiting specialists and classroom teachers, which will enable us to provide the additional non-contact time for teachers in primary schools. This will enable us to make some necessary savings without any job reductions. There are a few benefits – we may have to recruit more specialists; visiting teachers will now be part of a school complement and therefore have more security in times of budget pressures. I’m a great believer in honesty but it doesn’t make some messages any easier to deliver.

Open Source Education

On Wednesday I met with Robert Jones to check out his FreeMIS on-line management information system. As I explained on Wednesday Robert is an advocate and user of open source software. I’d never heard of open source but since Wednesday I’ve been doing a little more homework. It is a remarkable concept – develop something share it with others – for free!, who then improve it and then pass it on to others – for free! No wonder some of the big software companies are frightened. It rang a bell for me this morning when Graham Whitehead talked about encyclopedia britannica and the fact that knowledege is developing so quickly that a paper based version is no longer useful. I linked this with the
wikipedia idea where people put information up on a site, which is self-monitored, and the info can be edited, added to and enhanced by other users. In a sense this is open source knowledge management. I then wondered does this have any potential for education and the development and delivery of the curriculum? Open source education? What would it look like?

Many meetings

I’ve been in post for four weeks. In that time I’ve been meeting all of the staff within the Department. These meetings have proved very useful. My over-riding impression is that we are fortunate to have so many committed and professional staff at all levels. I think the opinion in schools can sometimes be that people in the “centre” sit around drinking coffee all day and don't know what it's like in schools. This is completely mistaken and the staff here are determined to ensure that they provide a quality service to schools. If there is one problem it might be that people often work in isolation of their peers but this is easily resolved and I will be chairing a communication working group over the next few weeks.

I'm keen that I don't become overwhelmed with the job and have set up a number of systems and procedures with the help of our admin staff. One of the key elements of this strategy is how I intend to deal with e-mails. Too often someone in my position can spend all their time reading and responding to e mails. Given that my typing skills are limited – to say the least – it normally takes me 5 -10 minutes to read and respond to a single email. People deserve a response to e mails but too often that response is expected almost instantaneously. My system involves my admin support intercepting my e mails and printing them off. I then work on all the mails at the end of the day, dictating my responses onto a digital recorder. These files are downloaded onto my secretary's computer in the morning and all my e mails are typed and sent off on my behalf. In this way I can deal with the strategic aspect of my job whilst ensuring that all e mails enquiries are dealt with logically and timeously – usually within 24 hours. In this way I can deal with all my mails in under an hour wheas if I was typing a response to each I might be engaged in the process for up to three hours a day. We will be reviewing the success of this system after a couple of months.