The irony is that, of course, the real source of bureaucracy is all to do with the culture of the organisation, not a desire to impose paperwork on people. As a historian, Tristram Hunt surely knows the origin of the phrase 'Byzantine' - often used to describe intensely bureaucratic organisations. It comes from the autocratic Eastern Roman Empire. If failing to please the Emperor could lead (as it often did) to execution or exile, the response unsurprisingly involved creating tremendous paper trails to show approval. Of course this also had the side effect of slowing down any proactive innovation - and probably hastened the end of the Empire. I imagine a series of Emperors and advisors pledging again and again to 'cut back red tape' and wondering why nothing was happening and the mounds of reports kept growing.
Fast forward 1,000 years and we have the same issues. Schools seek to please the Government and OFSTED, not the people who actually use their services. The erratic opinions of the Emperor are replaced by the opaque and shifting goalposts and priorities of the Goverment - one day OFSTED are looking at websites (this school placed in special measures for, among other crimes, 'failing to meet its statutory obligations in providing information on its website'), the next at whether a school is 'British enough', the next at whether a school is correctly implementing performance-related pay, the next at whether schools are tackling obesity. A good school that is doing a good job for its community can have its future (and the Head's job) called into question immediately seemingly on a whim.
In response, a huge industry has been created where Heads and senior staff run around the country trying to understand what the Government or OFSTED might want (extending the Roman analogy, a bit like asking local officials and soothsayers for advice on how to please the emperor). Senior managers, pressed by school governors, are desperate to show that they are doing something about the pupil premium, performance related pay, tracking progress and improving teaching and learning - and respond by creating the paperwork to show they are doing so.
The result? Staff hours and turnover rise and good teachers start questioning why they bother turning up to do their jobs (just read any of the Guardian's Secret Teacher series!). Eventually the nature of the crisis reaches politicians such as Nick Clegg who speaks correctly of 'examples of excessive workload, including teachers required to mark up to 100 books a day' and decides action must be taken.
But it's harder than you might think. Take Nick Clegg's specific point about marking, which has obviously occurred in response to demands (actual or presumed) from OFSTED. But OFSTED has taken action. It has reframed its inspection guidelines and produced a long list of 'what it isn't looking for', including the statement 'Ofsted does not expect to see unnecessary or extensive written dialogue between teachers and pupils in exercise books and folders'. Case solved?
Unfortunately not - because the culture hasn't changed. In this blogpost @teachertoolkit shows that his school was criticised by OFSTED because “the quality of marking is not consistently diagnostic to help students improve their work.” This could well be a fair comment but in the absence of a clear solution, could be interpreted by his school (and surely will be by others) as reinforcing the need for extensive three-colour marking, regular book checks by senior managers to ensure that the policies are being implemented and my favourite waste of time the 'verbal feedback given' stamp! And we're back to 100 books a night...
So, what can be done? My key change would be to begin to 'invert the management pyramid'. What if OFSTED and the Government trusted schools and teachers, and senior leaders trusted teachers, providing support and solutions and focusing their efforts on areas where there are serious issues of concern? The key questions asked would change. Rather than 'we need this for OFSTED' could we hear schools asking, 'will gathering this data benefit students or teachers' and 'can we make better use of the information we already have?' Heads could innovate and share new ideas and be praised for doing so.
The real proof of any 'bonfire of red tape' will be if teachers are are able to carry out sensible and practical levels of marking, planning and assessment, and if schools can spend less time creating data and more time using it to improve performance. The alternative is a well-meaning cycle where we all try our best, but the paperwork doesn't go down and good teachers continue to leave the profession. And the Empire crumbles?