Schools

Headteacher support plea as anxiety levels double during Covid

'Shocking' Covid impact on heads sparks calls for government intervention to 'shore up sustainable leadership'

'Shocking' Covid impact on heads sparks calls for government intervention to 'shore up sustainable leadership'

Overall stress levels among school staff, including teachers and teaching assistants, have increased compared to 2021

Ministers must provide better support for headteachers to “shore up sustainable leadership”, experts said, after a report revealed their work-related anxiety more than doubled at the peak of the pandemic.

UCL’s Institute of Education (IOE) researchers also said their study revealed “shocking” differences in anxiety between leaders and classroom teachers that exposed the “additional strain” on heads.

A survey of more than 13,000 teachers and heads shows little difference in the anxiety levels of both during the run up to pandemic, between October 2019 and February 2020. 

One in four (25 per cent) of headteachers were “highly anxious” about work, while the level for teachers was 20 per cent. 

But between March 2020 and July 2022, around 35 per cent of headteachers reported high levels of anxiety during term time – consistently higher than the figure reported by teachers. 

This peaked in January 2021, when 65 per cent of heads felt anxious about work, compared to 42 per cent of class teachers.

This coincides with the government’s u-turn on its decision to keep schools open at the start of the third national lockdown.

Report co-author professor John Jerrim, from the IOE’s Social Research Institute, said the disparity reflected the “additional strain” that “ever-changing government policy” put on leaders.

“However, the differences in levels of anxiety are quite shocking, and the additional strain that was put on headteachers in particular is clear.”

‘Heads need better support’

The study, which analysed responses between October 2019 and July 2022, also reveals a decreased appetite in leadership roles.

The share of deputy and assistant heads who said they wanted to become a headteacher fell from 56 per cent pre-pandemic to 48 per cent post-pandemic. 

Dr Emily Tanner, programme head at the Nuffield Foundation, which funded the research, said the data provided “an important new perspective on the immediate and longer-term impact of Covid on the school workforce”.

“The heightened pressures faced by school leaders and the declining appetite for headship among deputy and assistant heads highlight the need for better support to shore up sustainable leadership,” she added. 

Schools Week has previously revealed how post-pandemic retention at leadership level has worsened.

A SchoolDash analysis showed headteacher turnover in September had risen by more than a third since before the pandemic. 

Jerrim said it was now “vital that the government now reflect on guidance and support given to school leaders during difficult periods, with greater attention paid on ensuring that schools can recruit and retain the best headteachers in future.”

‘Women were more anxious’

The rise in anxiety was also uneven.

Before Covid, male and female teachers with children aged under five had similar levels of anxiety – with around one in five saying they had high levels of work-related anxiety.

But in winter 2020, around a third of female teachers with young children felt highly anxious, compared to a fifth of males.

Survey results from 13,199 teachers were collected through Teacher Tapp on 75 Tuesday afternoons.

Teachers were asked about their work-related anxiety levels on a scale of one to 10, with seven or above classed as ‘high’. 

However the research’s limitation included the Teacher Tapp responses being a self-selected sample, rather than random, and focused solely on anxiety, rather than other issues including depression and stress.

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  1. What a load of rubbish! I am a class teacher who worked all the way through each lockdown and my anxiety levels were through the roof then. Unlike some professions, we were never protected from front-line work at any point and had to learn and deliver new ways of working without any extra time, allowances etc.