According to the Cambridge Dictionary, dead time refers to time when there is little or no activity.” Adam Boxer imagines within an educational context, that would translate to time when there is little or no activity that would improve student outcomes.” This is what he proposes we do about it…

In a recent Telegraph article, headteacher Gareth Stevens argued that it was imperative to reduce dead-time” in teachers’ timetables. To clarify his meaning, he referenced:

“…scheduling fewer internal meetings and centralising professional development online (thereby reducing duplication and travel between sites)”

Though I absolutely stand shoulder to shoulder with Stevens in trying to make teachers’ lives easier and their working hours more efficient, I’m not sure how scheduling fewer meetings would decrease dead time, unless those meetings were not contributing to student outcomes in the first place. Travelling to a different site makes a bit more sense, but is fairly niche and probably doesn’t apply to a great many teachers and leaders.

In general, teachers are worked off their feet, busily shuttling from one activity to the next; be it preparing resources, marking, data entry, parental conversations, duties and meetings – not to mention the actual teaching. Anything we can do to reduce that burden without negatively impacting student outcomes is a good thing so it is worth applying Stevens’ introduction of dead time in a more realistic way.

Dead time in meetings

Reducing the number of meetings” is also a bit of a blunt instrument. You might have ten agenda items to get through over the course of five meetings, so reducing the number of meetings just means you will increase the length of the meetings, rush agenda items, skip agenda items or end up re-instituting the previous number of meetings.

Despite this, there are ways that meetings can be improved to limit the dead time within them.

For example, all too often, you might have seven colleagues at a meeting, and an agenda item that only relates to five of them. You, therefore, have two otherwise-busy teachers experiencing dead time. To remedy this, have a hard rule that you don’t discuss things in meetings unless they apply to everyone there. You can arrange your agenda so that these exclusive” items happen at the end so you can invite the excluded” colleagues to leave without missing any subsequent items.

Other meeting dead times include waiting for colleagues to arrive. If someone is late for a meeting, then having everyone else wait for them is unfair. Instead, start the meeting on time, and then, afterwards, have a conversation with the late-comer and explain that you can’t hold everybody up for them and they need to arrive on time. If it happens again, graduate to a Conversation, followed by escalation to a Strong Conversation if there is re-offence.

Another potential dead time to consider in meetings relates to banter.” Having a joke in meetings and a bit of levity can be good for team spirit and morale, but you will definitely have colleagues that don’t enjoy it at the best of times, and at the worst of times are wondering why they are spending time listening to jokes rather than getting on with their work or going home to see their family.

Dead time reading emails

Most schools have an email problem. A full treatment of this is beyond the scope of any one article, but one obvious issue sticks out: reading an email only to find it doesn’t apply to you. You receive an email about 25 students who are missing Thursday afternoon because they are on a trip. The email has lots of detail about when they will be leaving lessons and where to send them and what they are doing and why and which students haven’t been invited and how wonderful it is for their personal development and how neatly it fits in with the Gatsby benchmarks or whatever (sounds like someone has an NPQ project…). You scroll down all of this just to find that you don’t teach any of the students on the list. You have just experienced dead time, as there’s no way that time you’ve invested in reading the email will improve your students’ outcomes.

It gets worse. You probably received that email three weeks before the day of the trip. Then, on the Thursday morning, you get the email again with a reminder that lots of students will be out of school this afternoon. Having no recollection of reading this email three weeks ago or whether your students were involved, you check it again and find that… you’ve just been hit with dead time round two.

Teachers and leaders need to foster a more sensible email culture, where one cardinal rule should be: never send an email to someone who doesn’t need to read it. This includes all staff emails, emails sent to groups of teachers, or emails with reminders sent to people who have already done the task. For example, if you asked five teachers, two weeks ago, for a SEND Annual Report form on a particular student, don’t just press reply all” and send out a polite reminder” on deadline day. If I sent it back to you two weeks ago, I now need to go hunting through my sent items to check again (because why would I remember?). Instead, never send an email to someone who doesn’t need to read it and check whether each recipient needs to receive a reminder.

Dead tech time

Wastefulness relating to bad technology can also fit into the dead time bracket, though solutions might be less obvious. At a school I used to work at, it took around four minutes to log on to a computer every morning. That might not sound like a lot, but by the time you’ve multiplied that time by every member of staff, often more than one login per day, and 190 school days, you’re up to quite a large quantity of time.

In a similar vein, I’ll send some work off to the photocopier and walk the 45 seconds to the closest copier, only to find there is a large queue. I then walk another 50 seconds to get to another copier, to find that it has no paper. I must now walk to the reprographics room to get paper, and by the time I am back someone has already filled it up with paper from another source and is printing 32 booklets. That’s a lot of dead time.

Solutions to technical issues like these aren’t straightforward because they are heavily context-dependent. Each school has its own long-term digital strategy that suits its needs, staffing and available resources. But feedback loops here are crucial: when I’ve been on my morning tour of the school in search of a photocopier, do I just chalk it up as one of those things” or do I raise it through the appropriate channel as something that happens regularly, slows me down and increases my dead time? Do leaders consider this as just as important as sexier” workload-reducing initiatives like cutting back on marking or data entry?

I think this leads to a unifying conclusion, that spans all forms of workplace inefficiencies – not just dead time. We need to consider our working time as precious. We need to note that every second we spend should be aimed squarely at the target of improving student outcomes.” And if it’s precious, we shouldn’t waste it, and we should fight for it when we feel it is being squandered.


Adam is Head of Science at a North London Academy. He is a co-founder of Carousel Learning, a holistic online quizzing platform aimed at improving student retention in all school subjects.

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