Hornets, Slugs, Bees and Butterflies: not-to-do lists and the workload relief revolution

How can we as school leaders support teachers and staff? How can we as teachers and staff best support each other as colleagues and allies? 

Nothing matters more than people in schools, and each other. One of the most scarce and precious resources of our people in schools, like water in a desert, is our time. 

Where are we overloading and overstretching ourselves? What can we best stop doing, limit and simplify?

Overload, burnout and turnover are problematic.

Teacher and school leader workload is high. 

Teachers work some fifty hours a week; many work sixty or more, especially school leaders.

30,000 teachers leave teaching every year in England, for reasons other than retirement. 

One in three teachers leaves teaching in the first five years of teaching. 

Three in four teachers here feel their workload brings them stress and unhappiness.

Why are our teachers burning out? 

Teachers and school leaders are strapped for time. Harried and hassled, we don’t often take the time to think deeply how we, how middle leaders and teachers are investing our time. 

Becky Allen, co-founder of Teacher Tapp and co-author of The Teacher Gap in 2017, has been thinking about teacher workload for years. She sees several reasons for workload overload:

Pressure and fears: school leaders and teachers feel they have to evidence what they’re doing in case they’re inspected.

Looking, worrying & copying: school leaders look anxiously to each other and proliferate workload to cover themselves in high-stakes accountability regimes.

Norms and beliefs: teachers may see autonomy, student engagement, marking, resourcing from scratch, differentiation, and report writing as what they do and even who they are; school leaders may see Quality Assurance, monitoring lessons, evidencing progress, analysing data, prepping for inspectors and governors, as what they do and who they are. 

Difficulties can be opportunities in disguise. 

Workload difficulties are wellbeing opportunities in disguise. 

And they give us the chance to rethink things.

Prodigious and pervasive problems can’t be solved with the same thinking that created them.

One way to see the problem is to see what’s within our control. Another is to know what’s not in our control, to understand it and to limit its pressures.

Know what’s in our control 

Our choices

Our views

Our goals

Our beliefs

Our identity 

Our mindset

Our thoughts

Our planning 

Our attitudes

Our boundaries

Our approaches 

Our perspectives 

Our actions to limit pressures

Our responses to fears

Our reflecting, thinking back and reviewing


Know what is unhelpful 

Bad ideas 

Bad examples 

Abnormal norms

Mad metastasis

Workload insanity

Contagious fears of the regulator 

Calls for schools to do more and more 

Ofsted as the rationale for doing anything 

League tables as the rationale for doing anything 

Infectious fears of parent pushback, media and social media 

Anything other than staff and students as the reason for doing anything


Time to review our time 

How much time do we take to review the time we individually spend each week, to work out how well we invested it?

How much time do we take to review the time our school leaders spend each week, to work out how well it’s invested?

How much time do we take to review the time our staff and teachers spend each week, to work out how well it’s invested?

It’s a struggle to find the time to review our time.


Everything we do has an effort-to-impact profile. 
It’s either a slug, a hornet, a bee or a butterfly.

What if we invested in considering everything we do through the effort to impact lens?

Hornets are high-effort, low-impact. They sting. Stop them. 

Butterflies are low-effort, high-impact. Heart-flutterers! Find them! 

There are also slugs and bees. 

Slugs are low-effort, low-impact. They’re slimey. Stop them. 

Bees are high-effort, high-impact. They work. Keep them! 

Stop the Hornets: a not-to-do list 

Hornets are high-effort, low-impact stingers.

  • Marking in books with written comments
  • Resourcing entirely from scratch 
  • Entertainers/‘fun’ games/‘hooks’
  • Differentiation activities 
  • Starters
  • Cutting and sticking/glueing in lessons
  • Cutting out cardsorts ahead of lessons 
  • Last-minute photocopying
  • Lesson plans 
  • Logging minutiae we can’t act on
  • Report writing 
  • Emergency cover lesson activities 
  • Shoehorning IT into lessons 
  • Graded lesson observations & grading proforma 
  • Rank-order set changes 
  • Pupil progress meetings 
  • Seating plans, with data & sub-groups 
  • Pointless paperwork & bureaucracy 
Teachers love to teach. Not to mark.

Let’s face it: our schools are plagued by hornets. 

Marking is a hornet. It costs our 500,000 teachers hundreds of hours each, and it costs us billions of pounds a year.

All of these hornets can be stopped. It’s in our control as school leaders to get rid of them. It’s down to us to stop teachers and staff from being stung by hornets. 

Stop the Slugs: a let-go-of list 

Slugs are low-effort, low-impact slimers.

  • sluggish meetings
  • data input and data-drop deadlines for Y7-10, at all
  • copying out learning objectives 
  • copying out the date 
  • copying out definitions 
  • pacifiers like wordsearches
  • colouring in 
  • half-termly/termly/biannual mock exams Y7-11  
  • intent statements, big ideas, soft skills
  • QLA
  • Flight paths 
  • Transient Display 
  • Roadmaps 
  • Coloured paper & overlays
  • Unevidenced interventions: lego, playdough
  • Predicted grades Y1-Y12
  • Target grades Y1-Y13
  • Performance management target grades
  • Ornate slide design, icons and dubious dual coding 
  • ‘Quality assurance’

Let’s face it: many of our schools are crawling with needless, pointless tasks, crawling with slugs.

It’s futile to do well what shouldn’t be done at all.

When I’ve challenged these waspish and sluggish practices and encouraged staff to let go of them, I’ve often heard various justifications for continuing them:

“But what about Ofsted?!”

“No, we never do things for a regulator. Only what’s best for staff and students.”

“But other schools do it! How will we get the same results?”

“We want to learn from the world’s very best schools, not the average school.”

“But I like doing it! It makes me feel productive!”

“At what cost?! Your time is one of the most scarce and precious resources you have!”

Keep the Bees – a keep-doing list 

Bees are high-effort, high-impact hard workers. 

  • Teaching 
  • Preparing teaching
  • Tutoring 
  • Conversations 
  • CPD
  • Encouragement 
  • Challenge 
  • Relationship-building
  • Time reviews 
  • Bureaucracy buster surveys/suggestions 

Example questions for a bureaucracy buster survey and time review: what’s the least purposeful, productive or valuable use of your time? What could we stop doing without detrimental impact for you, students or other staff? 

Teachers are bee-keepers, bustling through 30 hours of teaching and tutoring contact-time alone every week. 

School leaders are bee-keepers too, like teachers. Both invest much of their time in valuable conversations, CPD and relationships every day. 

Some beekeepers mistake hornets for bees and get stung again and again, seemingly without seeing it or seeming to puzzle out why. 

Few bee-keepers invest their time to save their time – let alone others’ time. That’s where the butterfly-catchers come in.

Find the Butterflies – a start-doing list!

Butterflies are low-effort, high-impact dreams.

  • Shared resourcing: examples & exercises 
  • More than 5 inset days a year 
  • Renewable recap questions 
  • Pupils self-checking, self-correcting 
  • Quizzing apps
  • Practice sites 
  • Booklets
  • Textbooks 
  • Sampling pupil work
  • Oak remote curricula lessons 
  • Virtual AI PA! 
  • Permanent display

Examples: a massive world map, amazing pupil artwork, timeless-quotation-wall-paintings – each can last decades. 

The best butterflies are magic: they multiply our time! For instance, well-coordinated shared resourcing means each teacher’s time investments are multiplied across many more lessons than their own. Another example: a virtual AI PA can create practice exercises and worked examples for us from our requests with a few prompts. Both have saved teachers I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of hours of weekend, evening and holiday time.

A butterfly-catcher and her butterfly house 

One of my all-time great heroes in education is Amy Coombe. When Amy started working at one school, the English teachers were spending 12 hours every week creating their own resources from scratch. By bringing in and curating shared curriculum resources and whole-class feedback, Amy saved her teachers and colleagues 1,000 hours a year on the weekends, evenings and holidays. Each of her astounding booklets are butterfly houses jam-packed full of butterflies: recap questions, model examples, explanations, worked examples, checks for understanding, practice exercises and exemplar paragraphs and essays. Tried and tested across different schools, high-quality and free online, each could save an English department many hundreds of hours of work starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. The butterfly catchers, like Amy, are out there.


Channeling Becky’s thinking, we can use the same forces that propelled us into this situation.

Pressure: bring each other positive peer pressure to cut the crap.

Learning: learn from the best schools with superb outcomes who also blaze the trail of slashing the hornets’ nests and stopping sluggish practices.

Norms: make it normal to cut unneeded workload and abnormal to keep bad practices, bad ideas and self-limiting beliefs that hold us back. 

The fight for the future of teaching is on.

The profession will find it hard to let go of the identity positions of school leaders as monitors, number-crunchers, QA-ers and evidencers and teachers as markers, resourcers, entertainers, differentiators. 

But we must let go of them, and the hornets that sting us, like grizzly bears shedding their heavy winter coats, as we emerge from the bitter winter of workload madness into the sunlight uplands with the honeybees and butterflies. 


The most precious resource we all have is our time.

Once used up, we can never replace our time.

To do our best work, we have to know what to overlook – and to choose what not to do. What to let go of. What to stop. What to cut. What to get rid of. We have to stop doing what’s good, in order to do what’s best. 

Stop the time-wasters.

Cut the time-drainers.

Keep the time-investments.

Find the time-savers.


Seek out the butterflies. 

Seek out the butterfly houses.

Seek out the butterfly catchers.

They may just multiply your time.


Join the workload relief revolution. 


Share the Why

Hornets and Butterflies, 2015

At what cost?

Why get rid of..


Graded observations

Differentiation activities

Target grades

‘Fun’ games/entertainers

Mad flight paths

Road maps

Pupil progress meetings

Slide sprawl

Distracting, time-consuming, transient display 

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
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