Staff wellbeing: The tide is slowly turning

Written by: Sinéad McBrearty | Published:

Schools can provide the best and worst working environments, but Sinéad McBrearty says there are signs that staff wellbeing is finally being given the priority it deserves

I was delighted to speak at the Royal Foundation’s recent Mental Health in Education conference about the importance of wellbeing and mental health for school staff and leaders and the impact this can have on pupils, schools and ultimately society.

The Duchess of Cambridge made an unscheduled address at the event where she praised teachers for the “vital” role they play in shaping pupils’ lives and called for more support for young people’s wellbeing. It was striking to also hear her stress that it is “vital we support teachers with their own wellbeing” so that they can provide the best level of care for children.

This event, part of the Royal Foundation’s Mentally Healthy Schools Programme, offered an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come in understanding the role of teacher and school leader mental and emotional health as part of a healthy education system. In a relatively short space of time, there has been a significant shift towards greater understanding and acceptance of the need for whole-school wellbeing across the sector. It is no longer perceived as a “nice-to-have”, but seen as integral to a school’s success.

In the face of ever-growing evidence of unreasonable stress and mental ill-health, taking care of our pupils, staff and leaders has never been more important. The current momentum toward healthier schools and workplaces offers a genuine opportunity to secure meaningful, lasting change.

Last year the Duchess of Cambridge launched Mentally Healthy Schools, a website for primary schools (www.mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk), offering teachers and school staff information, advice and practical resources to understand and promote pupil mental health and wellbeing. A legacy of the Heads Together initiative, it has drawn together 600 resources from experts including Place2Be, Young Minds and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. We have also contributed guidance and advice.

However, while progress has been made, the scale of the need remains daunting. As our most recent Teacher Wellbeing Index revealed, senior leaders along with NQTs are among those most at risk of poor wellbeing and mental health problems: 57 per cent of respondents said they have considered leaving education in the past two years due to health pressures.

The Department for Education’s recently published Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy positively acknowledged the importance of increased support for teachers within the first two years of their career: another signal of change. We want to see detail on how the DfE plans to incorporate resilience and emotional wellbeing training and support into the Early Career Framework.

There is no easy fix for the extremely high levels of stress and poor mental health evident in schools. Our response must recognise the complexity and interconnections between the issues. School culture shapes the best and worst working environments, with knock-on effects for wellbeing. As leaders, we know that we ought to listen to staff suggestions for improvements, but in practice, it can be difficult to avoid Wizard of Oz decision-making from behind an opaque curtain.

Openness, trust and collegiality are the hallmarks of the cultures in the healthiest schools we encounter. Headteachers are uniquely placed to interpret external requirements in a way that prioritises healthy working. And we need to support individuals to access counselling support without fear of shame or stigma. Don’t underestimate the impact of small steps in the journey toward a healthier culture. 

  • Sinéad McBrearty is acting CEO of the Education Support Partnership. For help or advice contact the Education Support Partnership’s free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561. Visit www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk


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