Hornets and Butterflies: How to reduce workload

Butterfly      Hornet

When teachers were asked about workload, 44,000 responded. Teachers work 50-to-60 hour weeks, often starting at 7am, often leaving after 6pm, and often working weekends. Some 90% of teachers have considered giving up teaching because of excessive workload, and 40% leave the profession within 5 years. There are teachers out there working 90 hour weeks.

For a school, there are great benefits to leading the way on reducing workload. Teachers who aren’t exhausted teach better. We contribute more over a longer time period. We are far happier to invest time in building trusting, caring, affirming relationships with children. We stay calmer in difficult confrontations, and are less likely to be short-tempered in everyday interactions. We support and encourage each other better. New teachers improve faster, veteran teachers stay longer, and everyone works smarter. A school that pioneers healthy work-life balance is more likely to attract teachers to join – and little matters more in a school than recruiting and retaining good people.

As a school leader, it’s worth asking: “what do you want teachers to say about the school when they’re with friends and family?”

In the school I work in, what I’d most like teachers to say is this: “We work smart. We focus only on what most improves learning. We stop ourselves from doing some good things, so we can put first things first.” 

What it takes to reduce workload is a shift in the mindset and culture of school leaders and teachers.

Hornets are high-effort, low-impact ideas, and butterflies are low-effort, high-impact ideas. Barry Smith has advised teachers for years to think about ‘learning return on time invested’. It can become a useful part of everyday chat in a school. EffortImpact What if we viewed everything we do at school through this lens? The idea is to get rid of the biggest hornets and search for the hidden butterflies.

Seeking out Hornets As senior team, we think ferociously hard about every decision through the lens of the impact-to-effort ratio. We encourage all middle leaders and teachers to do the same in their own arenas. Here’s what we’ve decided not to do:

  • No graded or high-stakes observations
  • No performance-related pay or divisive bonuses
  • No appraisal targets based on pupil data
  • No individual lesson plans at all
  • No expectation of all-singing, all-dancing lessons
  • No starters, plenaries, group work, attention grabbers, whizzy/jazzy nonsense
  • No cardsorts, discovery activities or flashy interactive whiteboards
  • No writing, sharing or copying learning objectives or outcomes
  • No extensive photocopying of worksheets
  • No shoe-horning of IT into lessons
  • No mini-plenaries or checks on progress within a lesson
  • No labour-intensive homework collection, marking or chasing up
  • No unnecessary manual data input or entry
  • No unnecessary paperwork
  • No labour-intensive written ‘dialogue’ marking
  • No time-wasting, temporary display
  • No split timetabling
  • No long-winded written reports to parents

It’s such a relief not to have to do any of these things and be free to focus on what matters most: our subjects and our pupils.  

Searching for Butterflies


Knowledge organisers are the ultimate renewable resource: they can be used by every future year-group and every teacher who teaches them. A knowledge curriculum, teacher-led instruction and strong textbooks reduce workload by eschewing differentiated or personalised resourcing. I’ll write about this idea of renewable resourcing in another post.  


We replace the hornet of setting, chasing, checking, marking and logging homework with revision, reading and online Maths – three of the most beautiful butterflies out there.  


Written marking is the ultimate non-renewable resource. By contrast, multiple-choice questions and icons are butterflies. I’ll write about our feedback approach and minimalist marking in another post.  

Two-Week Half-Term

Teaching teenagers full-time is an exhausting job in itself. The simple decision to have a two-week Autumn half-term has a powerful impact on staff energy in the longest term of the year.


We replace the hornet of transient, temporary display with the butterfly of permanent, enduring display.  


We replace the hornet of highly labour-intensive written parental reports with online access to subject, behaviour and attendance data so parents can see online anywhere, any time, how their pupil is doing. WorkloadImpact ***

If you are blind to the hornets in your school, you are allowing your teachers to get stung. Hidden butterflies improve learning and reduce workload, burnout and turnover. In schools, we are just getting started, and we should be confident that there are many more butterflies to find.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education, Staff Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Hornets and Butterflies: How to reduce workload

  1. Jacquie Turner says:

    As usual, your blog is sweet music to my jaded ears. Can you please open a school in Worcester which I could then join?

  2. Could you have regular contact with DfE + Nicky Morgan – and begin to influence?

  3. Darryn says:

    Michaela, the girl who kicked the hornets nest.

  4. djswaby says:

    Reblogged this on shinysurface.

  5. Jaqi says:

    Basically brilliant

  6. Reblogged this on Dr Mike Beverley and commented:
    I even like the title:-)

  7. Debaser says:

    Sounds great. but it will be useful to hear how you ensure progress on tasks which can’t be reduced to multiple choice tests e.g. essay writing, writing to describe/persuade etc. i assume you’ll be covering that in your post on ‘feedback approach’.

    Also, again from an English point of view, how do you propose to teach lessons aimed at analysing an ‘unseen text’ in which background knowledge is restricted to a short contextual introduction.

  8. julietgreen says:

    Although I strongly object to the insect analogy for a host of attached reasons (do hornets expend more energy than butterflies?) I think what your post is pointing towards is a return to a lot of the common-sense practice that I experienced as a child. We had great text books and our teachers had time and energy to teach. Bureaucracy was minimal, as was constant monitoring and appraisal. Teachers were generally excellent because they were required to know their subjects and because the curriculum was excellent (I didn’t grow up in UK). To follow your list would be like taking off a weighty yoke, but it would require bravery on the part of senior leaders.

  9. I have been teaching for 15 years in a Southern California hornet district. I am slowly dieing because of the work load and politics. My district treats their teachers like they are a dime a dozen and easily replaceable. Veteran teachers have no value. We are to be seen and not heard. I love teaching and hate it too; I believe it is my calling. Currently, I have begun the process to get out of this beautiful and sick career.

  10. rgslearning says:

    Reblogged this on RGS Learning and commented:
    Some food for thought – how can we work smarter not harder?

  11. PaperlessEdu says:

    Really encouraging to see how wholeheartedly you’ve committed to this; avoiding busy work is such an important area of impact, for both teachers and students. Impressed you’ve been able to jettison so many long-held ideas so quickly. Reposted on @PaperlessEdu

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  14. nappits1443 says:

    This approach is the bees’ knees! Hornets knees … Whatever. Brilliant.

  15. No plenaries or checks for progress… Rather a sweeping oath. How do know if your students are learning?

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  17. Have created a blog inspired by this post : http://hornetsandbutterflies.wordpress.com

  18. Steve Costen says:

    We are obsessed with reducing teachers workload, that’s why we created Lumici Slate, check it out here http://www.lumici.co.uk/lesson-planner/

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  24. Tina Courtenay-Thompson says:

    Please start talking to the DofE about what you are doing and open a school near East Finchley!

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  26. Chloe Stapleton says:

    Where do I apply for a job at your school? What a refreshing approach. Now I can forward this to all those who think that the “inquiry-learning-restorative-data-madness-insanely-differentiated-multiple-learning-style” way is THE ONLY WAY.

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  29. Rufus says:

    Reblogged this on No Easy Answers and commented:
    Typically excellent blog from Joe Kirby

  30. Paul says:

    Just retired from teaching. This is what I’ve had to endure over the last 30 years:

    Rainbow groups
    JIgsaw groups
    Ability groups
    Learning Style groups
    Triple impact marking
    Dialogic marking
    Growth mindset
    Differentiaton – should must and coult
    Mini plenaries
    Literacy coordinators
    Numeracy coordintators
    Half – termly data drops
    Traffic lights
    GCSE interventions
    Pupil Premiums interventions
    Graded lesson observation
    Mini- Ofsteds
    Mock Ofsteds
    Real Ofsteds
    Behaviour working parties
    Homework working parties
    Daily lesson plans
    Reconcilation meetings
    School Improvement partners
    Half a level of progress per lesson
    Planner checks

    and much more…

    So pleased to know that at least one school has ditched this nonsense.

    All the best


    • Anon says:

      This was such a giggle to read! Thank you so much for reassuring me I’m not failing by not managing to pull all this stuff off!

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  35. mroberts1990 says:

    Reblogged this on Teacher Voice.

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  38. AB says:

    Yr1 class teacher. Told I didn’t work hard enough even though the children were happy, confident and making progress. Told I didn’t write enough in every subject being marked. Told my displays weren’t good enough. The week before Easter I clocked my hours in school and working at home. I did 79 hours. Went into school during Easter ‘break’ changed all displays. Worked nearly every day in that ‘break’ on fabulous planning and wizzing flip charts. First day back after Easter at 7.30 am in my classroom DHT said ‘Your displays aren’t very good. We’re going to put you onto Capabilities!’
    Signed off work with stress. Left school. Left teaching. The end!

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