During my stint as a governor some time ago, teacher wellbeing (and the wellbeing of other staff members) was very much on the agenda. It was discussed in meetings and as a governor I was asked to have frequent conversations about workload and other matters related to how supported teachers are at work. Despite the fact that we didn’t have a solid framework for carrying out such conversations or anything like as much information as there is now on the bigger picture of teacher wellbeing, I did have a sense that we were doing something positive however ad hoc.
Exploring staff wellbeing for governors today is, or at least should be, front and centre of the job. In the 2020/21 academic year, Governors for Schools ran their “Wellbeing Governors” campaign which aimed to showcase the importance of looking after the mental health of all those in the school community. It also sought to highlight the impact that a link governor for wellbeing could make.
Governors for Schools produced a report which looked back on the Wellbeing Governors campaign since September 2020 Campaign-year-impact-report.pdf (governorsforschools.org.uk). It showed clearly the awareness that there is in governing bodies taking a robust interest in how staff at the school are doing with regard to wellbeing at work.
Governors for Schools is committed to maintaining their own engagement with putting mental health and wellbeing at the heart of school boards’ agendas. Their new campaign, “All pupils, every ambition”, is concerned with the role governors and schools play in delivering the best possible life outcome for all pupils, regardless of ability or circumstance, and clearly a positive and proactive approach to mental health and wellbeing will be a crucial component of this. Beyond this they will continue to work with their various partners to not only share the work they are doing but also ensure their own resources and messaging concerning wellbeing are current and of value.
School governor, Neil Yates, is well aware of the need for governing bodies to be at the top of their game when it comes to wellbeing. “A cursory glance at the statistics around teacher retention show that almost a third of new entrants to the profession have left within five years,” he explained. “Headteacher burnout is a real thing and the difficulties in recruiting to senior posts tells its own worrying story.”
Many would acknowledge that there are other issues at play here too. Yates suggests that behaviour and a perceived lack of support from senior staff may be playing a part. But he also sees that in survey after survey the volume of work and the psychological and emotional pressures that result, are cited as the main catalysts for many teachers losing their vocation and passion.
The 2019 Inspection Framework nods to these concerns when it states: “Inspectors will consider the extent to which leaders engage with staff and are aware and take account of the main pressures on them,” (para 63 Section 8 Handbook).
“In other words,” Yates explained, “schools that do not show due diligence in identifying and managing staff pressures run the very real risk of an adverse judgement at inspection.”
I have been through enough Ofsted inspections as a teacher and a governor to know that inspection itself can be a significant cause of teacher stress; high-stakes accountability rarely brings out the best in people and some senior leaders can unwittingly add to the stress through their response to the impending inspection. Yates suggests that it would be arguably an act of negligence for a board not to consider wellbeing as a priority issue. “And of course,” he explained, “there is a moral imperative clearly at play here. Yes, we need to consider wellbeing because of retention and inspection but more importantly because it is the right thing to do. Staff deserve to come to school and enjoy their day with a sustainable work-life balance. Happy staff are productive staff. Wellbeing is a fundamental condition of high performance, high expectations and excellent outcomes. It is fundamental to great governance.”
Where to start
If you want to give wellbeing the priority it should have, Yates feels that these points are a great place for your governing body to start:
- Culture - Look at the culture of your school. If the culture of your school is toxic, then no wellbeing initiative will ever be successful. Schools that promote certain values but demonstrate totally opposite traits in their interactions will haemorrhage staff and endure high absence rates.
- Knowledge - Governors need to know their schools. They need to be honest about what they know. And if what they know is concerning then they must engage support to repair it.
- Highlight - If wellbeing is viewed as critical as the board, is it explicitly referenced in the school’s long-term vision? Notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of schools do not have a timed, ambitious and measurable vision, the board needs to nail its colours to the mast. In effect it needs to pronounce that, “By 2024 Bash Street Primary will have wellbeing at the heart of its school community.”
- Ambition - It then needs to ensure that its strategy (the journey along which it travels to reach the vision) has a series of wellbeing milestones against which the board can measure its progress. And then of course the annual school development plan, populated by senior leadership will have the nitty gritty, the wellbeing initiatives and social events to sew it all together.
A word of caution, however. As Yates explained, “There is a very real danger that if governors cross the dividing line between the operational and strategic, Heads can feel they are being undermined and hence can become defensive or distant.” This is about collaboration more than anything else.
If governance does not include a forensic focus on wellbeing issues in a school, it could be argued that the duty of care to staff and pupils is not being fully addressed. Being part of the creation of a sustainable working environment where staff are enabled to create balance in their lives between work and home, is a key part of the governor’s role. As Yates said, “Great governance is founded on challenge even when those conversations need to be courageous. Wellbeing is not a could do. It’s not even a should do. Wellbeing is something we must do.”
Find out more
- Governors for Schools runs online elearning modules which look at some of the most common mental health issues in a school community Wellbeing governors - Governors for Schools This website also carries extensive resources for staff wellbeing.
- Neil Yates: @Neilayates
- Elizabeth Holmes’ book, Practical Guide to Teacher Wellbeing is published by Sage.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.