It will come as no surprise to anyone working in the world of education, in any capacity, that school staff are feeling the pressure. The Teacher Wellbeing Index, undertaken each year by Education Support and now in its seventh year, makes for a sobering read. As Chief Executive of Education Support, Sinéad Mc Brearty, stated in her Foreword to the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2023, “This year’s Teacher Wellbeing Index continues to hold up a mirror to the sector on issues of workforce wellbeing. There are few surprises here. The themes we heard through our Commission on Teacher Retention are echoed in the data: overwork, low trust in the accountability system, poor organizational culture across many schools and colleges.”
Mc Brearty also refers to the tragic death of headteacher Ruth Parry. At the inquest into Parry’s death, the senior coroner for Berkshire recorded a verdict of “suicide: contributed to by an Ofsted inspection carried out in November 2022.” Ruth Perry: Ofsted inspection 'contributed' to head teacher's death - BBC News
The ways in which schools and their communities experience inspections as well as the theme of professional isolation are also explored in this year’s Index. The aim is that the findings will “inspire those in a position to make a difference to take action for improvement.”
The key findings are shocking. Not so much because they clearly indicate just how stressed the school workforce is, but because of the fact that we have known the trend for years and there is little by way of improvement in the working lives of teachers and school leaders.
- 78% of all staff are stressed. (89% of school leaders and 78% of school teachers.)
- 55% of all staff consider their organisation’s culture has a negative effect on their wellbeing.
- 46% of all staff say their organisations do not support employees well who have mental health and wellbeing problems.
It is worth just reading those statistics again. The overriding question that has to be answered is, what on earth is stopping us from making the much-needed changes that will better support wellbeing in our schools (because therein lies the problem)? We already know that great staff wellbeing has a positive impact on what happens in the classroom, so why is it not our number one priority?
Perhaps the most shocking statistic from those key findings is not the vast numbers of stressed teachers and school leaders, although that is shocking enough, but the fact that almost half of all staff feel that those with mental health and wellbeing problems are not well supported. Getting this right in schools would potentially be a huge win. This would be about making it easy to discuss mental health in the workplace, signposting sources of support, making sure wellbeing is a permanent fixture on meeting agendas, not implementing change without a proper appraisal of the impact it would have on wellbeing and so on. It is also about putting wellbeing at the heart of the curriculum, to ensure that relevant key messages about staying healthy are taught and learned right across the school at all ages and stages, and in all subjects.
Other findings include:
- 81% of all staff experienced symptoms due to their work (that breaks down to 84% of senior leaders and 82% of school teachers).
- 45% of staff thought the symptoms could be signs of anxiety, which compares with 33% of the population of GB having high anxiety.
It should be reiterated that any troubling symptoms should be discussed with your health care provider (usually your GP or specialist nurse practitioner at your GP surgery). Stress and anxiety can have a negative effect on your physical and mental health and the sooner symptoms are addressed the better. In particular, ask for a blood pressure check, just to make sure that it is within the “normal” range.
Anyone who has spent time working as a teacher will know the isolation that can be felt. While teachers interact with vast numbers of people on a daily basis, the work itself can be isolating and this is evident in the latest Index. 26% of staff experience at least one aspect of feeling isolated, left out or lacking companionship at work. Perhaps it is easy to see why this happens; life in schools is hectic and staff are often running to keep up. Building and maintaining the kind of working relationships that guard against isolation takes time and energy. Unless we prioritise them, loneliness is the risk. Again, building structures to guard against this will help. A simple start would be talking about this in team meetings and focusing on ways of building support networks and links within your school and with neighbouring schools. Sometimes a simple acknowledgement of how isolating teaching can be is enough to help guard against its ill-effects.
It is well worth reading the entire report (see below), not least the section on the impact of inspections, which we know too well can be devastating (spoiler, 73% of staff consider inspections are not fit for purpose). There are some monumental challenges ahead in changing cultures, supporting teachers and school leaders who are stressed and anxious, and building a system that is designed to get the best of the school workforce and its pupils. As the report concludes, “Workforce wellbeing is poor and continues to decline.” Recommendations include prioritizing suicide prevention, overhauling the inspection system, developing a coherent strategy to improve the wellbeing of the education workforce, and properly funding the wider ecosystem of public services, among others. We must live in hope, for the sake of education.
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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. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.