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What Heads can do to Protect Staff Wellbeing

Strong leadership is needed to shield teachers from unnecessary DfE tosh, unsupportive parents and even their own worst excesses, says Kevin Harcombe...

  • What Heads can do to Protect Staff Wellbeing

Calls to a teacher helpline relating to workplace stress grew by 49% this year, according to the Education Support Partnership.

Over half of the cases involved staff who have been working in education for fewer than five years and three quarters of callers were classroom teachers.

Similarly worrying, a survey by teaching union NASUWT found that 85% of teachers have had trouble sleeping (ever since we did away with desks to rest our heads on during quiet reading, no doubt), 77% have experienced anxiety and 30% have turned to medication because of their job.

According to the Health and Safety Executive the three most stressful occupations in the UK are nursing/midwifery, teaching and welfare.

They are all in the public sector, which is pretty much scorched earth after nearly 10 years of government-imposed austerity, so do you think staff trying desperately to squeeze out (sorry, midwives) more and more with less and less might just be linked to increased incidences of stress and depression? Asking for a friend.

Education secretary Damian Hinds, in a classic act of arse-covering, set up a teacher wellbeing advisory panel in March.

Led by the chief executive of mental health charity Mind, the group will look at how “teachers and school leaders can be better supported to deal with the pressures of the job”.

Note, nothing about ameliorating the pressures, just about support to deal with them.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We want every child to be taught by great teachers who have the time, freedom and support to do what they do best – inspire the next generation.” I have to admit I laughed out loud when I read that.

Time in a crowded curriculum? Freedom when schools are increasingly micromanaged? Support when teaching assistant numbers are plummeting due to budget cuts and schools are having to crowdfund pencils and paper?

“Where staff are struggling,” the DfE continued, “we trust headteachers to take action to tackle the causes of stress and ensure they have the support they need.”

This looks like buck-passing by the DfE but they do have a point. Headteachers have a duty of care to their employees. In fact, the prime duty of heads after the safety of the children is the wellbeing of their staff.

We know there is stress associated with DfE crapola, Ofsted nonsense, near-feral children and bullying, unsupportive parents – but a lot of the stress teachers experience stems from failure of local leadership to shield them from unnecessary tosh.

Heads can (and do) ignore or subvert some DfE pronouncements to protect staff from their latest arrant nonsense; heads can play the Ofsted game sufficiently to make the inspectors go away without damaging outcomes for individuals; heads can take the flak from the increasing number of parents who know everything about their rights but bugger all about their responsibilities.

In particular, heads should: allow staff to follow (and get job satisfaction from) their own preferred pedagogy (providing it works) rather than imposing one on them.

Heads should cut the number of staff meetings… then cut them some more. Meetings are seldom necessary and, when they are necessary, they drag on beyond their usefulness, just like education secretaries or Game of Thrones.

One management consultant tasked with reducing stress in the workplace set up a morale motivation committee to share ideas on reducing stress when, in fact, it was just another bloody meeting which added to their workload and stressed them out.

Heads should cut down, too, on frequent (and frequently meaningless) assessment and progress reviews – even Ofsted are saying this.

Protect your staff from the worst excesses of themselves – they will often come up with great ideas for a new event, show, scheme or something: remind them how shattered they were at the end of the last school year and ask what they are going to drop in order to make time for the new thing.

Shun educational bandwagons and fads that hamstring staff and achieve nothing. Remember thinking hats? Brain gym? Learning styles? Miss them? Of course you don’t!

Best of all, talk to your staff and find out what works for each individual.

I once urged a teacher to go home as everyone else had left the building and she was still slogging away. She explained that by staying a little later at school meant she then avoided working at home, making a clear separation between work and personal life. It worked for her.

If, as a head, you find doing the above stressful, the Education Support Partnership helpline is 0800 056 2561.

Kevin Harcombe is a Teaching Awards winner and headteacher at Redlands Primary School, Fareham. Follow him on Twitter at @kevharcombe.

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