John Bald is a former Ofsted Inspector, and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.

Last Saturday, Nicky Morgan published three independent reports on the unglamorous but important topics of marking, planning and data collection. The reports  are the work of independent committees, chaired by successful members of the profession – Dawn Copping, Kathryn Greenhalgh and Lauren Costello –  and with senior representation from Ofsted.  They are summed up in their shared title “Eliminating unnecessary workload.”  

The fact that there really is unnecessary workload needs explanation to people not directly involved in education. From the time I started, some people have held the view that teachers do not work hard enough and have shorter days and longer holidays than they should. For more than a few teachers, this was true, and no-one could do much about it – Chris Woodhead’s excoriating comments in the early nineties were based on direct observation.

I’ve seen unplanned and pointless lessons, books left unmarked for months on end, and no record kept of pupils’ progress – or  lack of it. Very often, the worst work would be the most stoutly defended, and one secondary headteacher had the brass neck to complain to Ofsted about a colleague’s supposed ignorance after he had found that English books had not been marked for six months. 

What we have now, though, is a culture of paperwork that wastes everybody’s time for the convenience of managers and post-2005 Ofsted inspectors who think that what is written down represents what is done.  This “gold plating” (Data report) not only has nothing to do with education, but is a direct threat to it.

Teachers are being forced to write down everything they do, everything they have done, and everything they intend to do. It is burning good people out, and to no good purpose.  In some GCSE classes, for example, marking amounts to rewriting the work, so that the pupil can reproduce the corrected version next day in a controlled assessment. These practices, referred to as “triple” and “deep” marking are, to me, subtle versions of fraud, but they boost GCSE scores, and will continue to do so until the government’s examination reforms are fully in place.

This morass began with attempts by Labour’s Inner London Education Authority to improve the standards reached by lower- attaining pupils by having teachers write essays about them in its Primary Language Record. It continued in Labour’s national strategies, and has been adopted by too many academies. It is difficult to find any section of the education service that has not contributed in some way. Taken together, these reports amount to an educational version of Dunning’s motion -“Paperwork has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.”    

Nicky Morgan agrees, and her response to the reports is exactly right. “Nothing,” she says, “is more damaging to the profession than wasting the passion and expertise of teachers and school leaders on unnecessary tasks,” and she has accepted all of the recommendations in each of the three reports.  She also correctly identifies them as “a great example of the profession taking charge of their own development.” I wholeheartedly agree. These are the best-argued educational documents to come from the government since the late Sheila Browne’s surveys of primary and secondary education in the seventies.

Putting their sensible and practical recommendations into practice is another matter. The paperwork culture has grown up because people in positions of authority in education have found it to their advantage. They will not respond to urging from the secretary of state, from Ofsted, or from anyone else unless and until they see that it is in their interest to do so. Ms Morgan must do more than ask for a culture change throughout the system – she and Ofsted need to make it happen, in practice as well as on paper.