Teacher mental health: Will The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter plan make a difference?

The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter has been launched by the Department of Education, and applies to schools, colleges, and further educational institutions in England. It was co-created by the DfE’s expert group on staff wellbeing, which included OfSTED and the teaching unions.

According to the guidance document:

The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP Minister of State for School Standards May 2021 states that “it is more important than ever that wellbeing and mental health are at the forefront of education policy.” (p1)

It is likely that no one will disagree with that statement.

What needs to change to improve teacher mental health and wellbeing?

Teacher mental health and wellbeing has long been an issue and various surveys corroborate each other’s findings.  The NASUWT annual Big Question survey (2019) highlights that workload continues to be a cause of concern for teachers.

teachers mental health workload is still an issue
The NASUWT Teachers’ Mental Health in the UK - Evidence from the NASUWT’s Big Question survey 2019

The latest Teacher Wellbeing Index (2020) highlighted “a worrying trend of increased symptoms of poor mental health, such as mood swings, difficulty concentrating, insomnia and tearfulness.” (p2) 

Teachers mental health and wellbeing in 2020
The Teacher Wellbeing Index (2020) Education Support

And more recently, research (Asbury and Kim, University of York, 2021) shows that teacher mental health and wellbeing has declined further during the last 12 months.

As Nick Gibb states: “many of the issues this charter seeks to help address are not new” hopefully this charter will play a role in changing this.

The fact that these issues are not new is also concerning. Initiatives over the years have not had the intended impact and so the result is a profession of highly stressed educators with a recruitment and retention problem. 

So how does The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter plan to make a difference this time?

As part of the new education staff wellbeing charter, the Department for Education and Ofsted have made 12 commitments and from the autumn, schools will also be able to sign up to a voluntary charter of 11 pledges, aimed at showing a commitment to “protect, promote and enhance” staff wellbeing.  

These two combined approaches aim to place “wellbeing and mental health at the heart of … decision making.” 

According to the recent research briefing on teacher recruitment and retention in England (April 2021), England is still experiencing ‘pressure’ when it comes to having the required teacher numbers to meet pupil demand. Teacher shortage remains an issue, despite a recent surge in applications for ITT programmes. This added pressure will not be enhancing staff wellbeing.

The 2018 TALIS survey which found that over 50% of teachers in primary and lower secondary schools felt their ‘workload was unmanageable’. The 2019 Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy made ‘reduced workload’ a priority. This is an ongoing challenge, but an ‘unmanageable’ workload is not conducive to promoting staff wellbeing.

Teachers mental health support to reduce workload
Taken from Department for Education: Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy – one page school briefing (2019)

During the pandemic, it was widely reported that school leaders received numerous updates to government guidance in just four months – a quarter of them published during anti-social hours. Therefore, the DfE need to honour their commitment to publish GOV.UK content only during working hours – and not to revert to their caveat too regularly that states that this commitment will be adhered to “unless there is a significant user need or there is a legislative requirement”. 

Wellbeing and Ofsted are not two words that go together for many colleagues!  For many, an Ofsted inspection is a time of increased stress, anxiety, and worry.  

Ofsted say that:

“First, we are committed to making sure our requirements of schools and colleges on wellbeing are clear. Second, we recognise that education staff can feel that inspections are a source of stress.”

Clarity around expectations is important. Equally, it is good that Ofsted acknowledge that the inspection process can have an inadvertent impact on staff wellbeing. These words need to be translated into action both by Ofsted and by school management teams for them to create a tangible change in the way inspections are regarded and a positive impact on staff wellbeing in relation to the inspection process.

The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter is a non-statutory document. Schools and colleges are invited to sign up to the charter in the autumn of 2021 and thus demonstrate their support to ‘protect, promote and enhance the wellbeing of staff’. It will be interesting to see which establishments do sign up and if in 2023, when the charter is reviewed, a positive impact can truly be seen and measured because of the charter.

To conclude, the Education Staff Wellbeing Charter is intended to highlight the need for schools and colleges to embed improving staff wellbeing into their long-term strategic and thus demonstrate their commitment to protecting, promoting, and enhancing staff wellbeing and placing this at the heart of their decision making.  The review in 2023 will determine its success but in the meantime all educational professionals need to keep doing their best to protect their own wellbeing in whatever ways work for them as individuals. 

Qualified mental health support in schools and colleges
 At Minds Ahead we provide mental health training in schools and colleges, help local authorities and charities develop mental health strategies. Our qualifications complement the support that is available in local areas. School and college leaders and staff will be empowered to support the mental health needs of the whole school community including developing knowledge of other local mental health services and clinicians.