Which leads me into wellbeing and workload, about which I was interviewed by a think tank earlier in the week. I’m a veteran of the teacher workload reforms of the early 2000s and the development of support staffing which genuinely changed our lives for the better. However, every secretary of state since 2010 has paid lip service to teacher workload while every budget since 2010 has made it materially worse. Professional wellbeing is dependent upon having a manageable workload. Workload is dependent on time. Time is money. Teachers’ hours are squeezed and class sizes inflated when schools don’t have money. Workload goes up and wellbeing takes a hit. People are exhausted and overwhelmed. Tackling teacher workload is expensive. Talking about teacher wellbeing is cheap. Forgive me, it’s not the first time I’ve ranted about this.
Anyway, the Department has it in hand. The DfE Education Staff Wellbeing Charter was interpolated between the pandemic and the current financial and political collapse. Supported by unions and schools, it claims that:
Signing up to the charter is a public commitment to actively promote mental health and wellbeing through policy and practice. It is a way to show current and prospective staff that your school or college is dedicated to improving and protecting their wellbeing.
Protecting the wellbeing and mental health of staff is:
- essential for improving morale and productivity
- critical to recruiting and retaining good staff
- a legal duty: employers are required by law to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees
- taken account of as part of Ofsted inspection
How’s that going? Is morale improving? What, precisely, in education is productivity? Student progress? Attendance? None of these are improving, and recruitment and retention is catastrophic. Of course we have to do what the law requires to look after our people, but OFSTED? Here I skid to a halt. That’s why people have signed up to it. It’s certainly why we have.
Here’s the wording from OFSTED’s ‘evaluation of leadership and management’. Inspectors will look at the extent to which leaders take into account the workload and well-being of their staff, while also developing and strengthening the quality of the workforce. (para 313)
Which might get you the ‘outstanding’ grade descriptor where leaders ensure that highly effective and meaningful engagement takes place with staff at all levels and that issues are identified. When issues are identified, in particular about workload, they are consistently dealt with appropriately and quickly. Staff consistently report high levels of support for well-being issues. (para 416)
I’m not decrying schools’ attempts to make the difficult bearable or even enjoyable. Lord knows we try. But what does it mean? Proper HR, of course, a bit of flexibility when family life bangs on the door, respect in the workplace, evidence that discussion is welcomed, free tea, umbrellas and a decent behaviour policy, a dress code that doesn’t require you to look like an idiot, plans, policies and leadership that explain themselves. Email curfews. Kindness. Wisdom.
But all of these should be normal. The only reason they wouldn’t be is if a school was being run madly and badly, by people hooked on robust leadership tropes. It would be good if Ofsted could uncover some of that, as opposed to lauding it, which they used to.
What teachers really need, as well as decent pay that respects their training and professionalism, and their value to society, is time. Time to think, collaborate, learn, plan, keep up with their subject. Time to care. Time to have fun in the classroom. All of that costs money. What I need is funding that allows me to put at least an extra hour of professional thinking time back into teachers’ weeks. And, if there are really going to be no other services available to children and their families, another hour on top of that to listen and talk to children about their lives.
I need that money now, and I need it on top of the budget I already have. An uplift of about 5% would do it. The last budget settlement just postponed disaster: it didn’t allow any of this.
What really drives teachers, social workers and medics out is moral injury. That’s when the workplace doesn’t match the vocation and good people have to make bad decisions either because they’re told to or because there isn’t the money to do better. When learning is secondary to outcomes, when compliance is substituted for character, when recruitment and training is bungled and cheapened again and again and again: it’s no wonder people leave.
Don’t ask us how we are. Don’t lodge the system’s failures in the hearts of teachers. Don’t pretend there are cheap alternatives. As far as I’m concerned, teacher wellbeing is all about the money.