Recently I read an excellent Q&A session published by TeachCare. It led to my getting involved in a brief discussion on Twitter, firstly about the damage Ofsted is doing in some or many schools (I haven’t seen the stats) and this morphed into my being asked whether I thought teaching had become a more difficult job over the last 15 to 20 years. Having made a fairly glib answer that I didn’t and that the curriculum for example, has actually become more flexible, the discussion ended… but the issue has become an earworm and I can’t escape it.

When I look back to my first 27 years in education, from 1965 to 1992, I can list the headteachers I worked for: TM, DT, TE, PB, BW, XX, CF, DE… eight heads in 27 years. We could enjoy a minor diversion here, called ‘spot the female heads’. It won’t be a lengthy diversion because there is only one – seven of those heads were male. Now I shall award each three main characteristics of leadership based on my experience of them in the profession and the schools they led.

TM: Aloof, Dictatorial, Priority: Unknown – rarely seen
DT: Distant, Non-assertive, Priority: Smooth operation
TE: Gregarious, Disorganised, Priority: Anything but his school
PB: Devious, Dictatorial, Priority: Control
BW: Approachable, Organised, Priority: Smooth running
XX: Aloof, Unprofessional, Priority: The music teacher
CF: Caring, Thorough, Priority: Wellbeing for all
DE: Approachable, Disorganised, Priority: Child-centredness

Two of those heads definitely showed caring to their staff in a crisis, but only when the need was glaringly obvious. Three of them seemed oblivious to the fact that the staff were living people with worries, difficulties and issues. One head was extremely efficient and knowledgeable, but always had time for anyone – pupil or staff or parent. One head was sacked for immorality – frogmarched off the premises after refusing to leave discretely.

Today’s heads are cut from a very different cloth. They are mainly extremely professional and knowledgeable about educational matters, and they toil long hours to keep abreast of change, the latest dictats from above and the needs of the pupils, parents and communities that their schools serve. Yet they also, in the main, work hard to have the issues of staff wellbeing and self-esteem strongly to the forefront of all that they do. And this has been so evident in the way their staff have coped with the terrible traumas, track changes, pendulums and pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So why are the current generation of teachers generally so much more stressed than their colleagues of the past? Disregard the pandemic of course, that would do it for anyone, so let’s consider the teachers who entered the profession from 1995 to 2015. Pre-2000, I was mainly working as an LA advisor across 150 primary schools and I never saw a teacher cry about school-related issues or heard that anyone else had. Over the 12 years that I was involved in Ofsted inspections, I never heard that we had left a teacher in tears, or a head teacher for that matter – although I fear that we must have. The National Strategies were inflicted on primary schools and changed and rechanged. Testing was reviewed and changed. Ofsted was reviewed and changed in 2005, 2009 and 2015. Teachers were often stressed but rarely to the point of tears and they did not leave the profession in the numbers that do today.

So why today? The Ofsted regime and its associated inspection framework changed again in 2019 and that has certainly led to huge stresses and anxiety across staff at all levels. School leaders and teachers also report feeling undervalued by the government. In actual fact, heads work incredibly hard to try to meet the constantly changing demands and pressures from above. Historically, education has always been the scapegoat of new governments and the pendulum has swung constantly – reversing policy, practice and curriculum with each incoming regime. Now, however, one party has been in government since 2010, so why is the pendulum still swinging so violently and why are heads running themselves ragged to keep up with it? The answer has to be that a change of party or portfolio leadership is almost as impactful as a change of government… and the further we edge away from the principles of ‘Every Child Matters’, the less we address the needs of the majority of our schools’ populations.

The issue of teacher wellbeing is not unique to England:

‘In one study, 85 percent of teachers reported that work-life imbalance was affecting their ability to teach. Other research has shown that at least 30 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. Like our research, these studies found that the general causes of teacher stress and burnout are related to a lack of strong leadership and a negative climate, as well as increased job demands, especially around testing, addressing challenging student behaviours, a lack of autonomy and decision-making power, and limited-to-no training in social and emotional learning (SEL) to support educators’ and students’ emotional needs.’

(Education in the Face of Unprecedented Challenges: Yale Centre for Education USA; April 2020)

I have always felt that NPQH, introduced as a qualification for headship in 1997, had something to answer for in generating teacher stress. We now have a nation of schools almost totally led by NPQH qualified head teachers, many of whom have been inculcated into the theory of the tick-box route to success. The current programme provided by most institutions is much improved and deals far more with reality and practice. Our heads strive for the best for their pupils and community, and in doing so they are constantly trying to improve their systems and solutions to match the best they see around them. Best practice is shared and circulated. Ofsted has only to praise an approach and a network of schools will adopt it tomorrow. So – for the teachers – the pendulum swings. A new requirement, method, format, system… change… change… change…

Finally, the constant changes in policy and practice lead to stressed leadership and stressed leadership unintentionally transmits stress to the staff of their school in so many ways, especially with increasing expectations, increasing demands and regular changes in decision or direction.  We all need to sit back, take a great sigh and say, ‘Enough is enough!’ Education should be led by educators, with education at the heart of the process. I wish we could throw everything out and start again with wellbeing of pupils and staff underpinning the process rather than tagged on alongside. However, we can’t. All we can do is believe in ourselves and our staff, consult and consider, and ensure that all changes are only for the better. If in doubt, don’t do it (or not yet) – and if change truly can’t be avoided, make it gradually in a planned and managed way.

Relevant publications I have enjoyed recently include:

Back on Track by Mary Myatt
Teacher Wellbeing and Self-Care by Adrian Bethune and Emma Kell
Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom by Adrian Bethune
Preserving Positivity by Haili Hughes
What They Didn’t Teach Me on My PGCE by Sarah Mullin

And, of course, our own It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher


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