A charter won’t fix the teacher wellbeing crisis

22 May 2021, 5:00

The DfE’s new initiative is welcome, writes Mary Bousted, but this charter can’t be used to paper over the cracks of a broken accountability system

The DfE and Ofsted recently launched a staff wellbeing charter to “protect, promote and enhance” staff wellbeing. The NEU supports this initiative because a commitment to improve access to mental health and wellbeing resources and to embed wellbeing in CPD is a welcome move away from former chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw’s famous proclamation that teachers don’t understand the meaning of stress.

But for as long as they refuse to acknowledge current research on the strong link between poverty and attainment and continue to hold schools accountable for things they cannot control, no commitment to a charter will convince me that they are serious about promoting teacher wellbeing.

The uncomfortable truth is that teachers in England understand very well what stress means and how it affects them. England comes at the top of teacher stress OECD league table: 38 per cent of teachers in England (more than double the OECD average) feel stressed a lot of the time, according to the 2018 TALIS survey.

Stressed teachers are less likely to be satisfied with their job and more likely to look to leave it. So, when we see teachers leaving the profession in droves (more than one in four within two years of qualification, and nearly 40 per cent within ten years), and when the main driver for leaving is the stress caused by excessive workload, we can see that we have a problem.

What causes the teacher stress epidemic in this country? It is not the teaching. English teachers’ teaching hours are about the OECD average. The problem, teachers report, is excessive time spent on lesson preparation, marking and assessing pupil’s work and completing administrative tasks. The result: teachers work more unpaid overtime than any other profession in the country, with working weeks approaching 50 hours.

The DfE’s busy-work is a major cause of poor wellbeing. The other is fear of Ofsted

In addition to excessive workload, teachers are also excessively watched, coming top of the OECD league table when it comes to their work being observed and monitored. Lesson observations, book scrutiny and the test scores of their students all add to a heavy weight of teacher accountability which results in school cultures that are uncollaborative, isolating and dismissive of teachers’ knowledge and skills. Teachers here are less likely than their OECD counterparts to be asked their views on professional issues that are central to their working lives – including the curriculum and the school’s disciplinary policies.

School leaders confirm these depressing findings. They are far less likely than their international counterparts to be frequently engaged in supporting cooperation among teachers to develop new teaching practices. Conversely, they spend more time than their international counterparts holding teachers accountable for their students’ learning outcomes.

Of course, teachers should hold some responsibility for their students’ outcomes, but as the OECD observes, “Such accountability…should be perceived as fair and should take into account factors beyond the control of teachers, such as the characteristics of the student intake, the resources available within schools and the local context.”

But this is just what our school accountability system does not do. Ofsted does not take into account the context in which schools operate and the level of challenge they face. The new inspection framework was designed to do so but evidence to date still shows that Ofsted disproportionately awards poor inspection grades to schools doing the hardest work educating disadvantaged pupils.

Is it teachers’ or leaders’ fault that nine out of every class of 30 pupils are living in poverty? Can it ever be right to hold them solely accountable for an attainment gap, 40 per cent of which is set in stone before they start school?

The DfE’s busy-work to avoid facing that fact is a major cause of the workload that has such a negative effect on wellbeing. The other is fear of Ofsted, which creates a climate of compliance that robs teachers of their professionalism.

Until they wake up to their role in creating this wellbeing crisis, their charter will be nothing more than a palliative. And while that’s better than nothing, it’s far from what’s truly needed to stem the flow of good teachers leaving the sector.

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