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“Putting increased pressure on a fragile system does not help”

In the last few years, various reports have highlighted a crisis in the teaching profession. Low initial teacher training applications as well as recruitment and retention difficulties indicate that the attractiveness of the teaching profession is declining. While factors such as the cost-of-living crisis and school inspections may be contributing, we cannot ignore the long-lasting impact of the pandemic which is still affecting staff members and may be playing a significant role in this crisis.

Research in primary schools during the period of lockdowns and school disruptions showed that overall, the experience of teachers, headteachers and other staff members was negative. During the first year of the pandemic, staff members reported an increase in their stress levels and a decline in mental health and well-being. This was mainly due to an increase in their workload and scope of responsibilities, negative public perception of their profession, concerns about everyone’s health and a general sense of uncertainty. Similar findings were reported even after the third lockdown.

As part of the ICICLES project, we carried out surveys and interviews with teachers and headteachers from primary schools in England during the Spring and Summer of 2022 to learn more about their experiences of the pandemic and its ongoing impact.  

Most teachers and headteachers described this period as challenging and saw a significant increase in workload. They also reported being more worried and stressed than usual because they had to support the welfare of children and families while navigating new information about the pandemic and implementing last-minute changes. They also felt that there was a misconception that they were at home while parents oversaw their children’s education. In reality, schools were working overtime to ensure children and families were supported. Those comments left them feeling undervalued and underappreciated, with some staff deciding to leave the profession.

After all restrictions were lifted, school staff were still under immense pressure. Senior leadership were concerned about the physical and mental health of their staff who were still dealing with increased workload and additional responsibilities. They still did not feel appreciated and were now also dealing with external pressures to make sure that children “catch up”, with limited resources and support. Back then, many staff were reaching burnout and considering leaving the profession. Others found it difficult to recruit people for new posts. 

While this may have come as no surprise at the height of the pandemic, our recent results show that even almost two years after restrictions were lifted, the struggles resulting from school disruption are still negatively impacting the day-to-day lives of teachers and headteachers. We surveyed teachers and headteachers again in Spring 2023 and found that staff still had a high workload with some of them describing themselves as “no longer just educators”. After almost two years of restrictions being lifted, schools were still performing additional roles to support pupils and families, with limited by a lack of funding or resources. Teachers and headteachers were still reporting a decline in mental health and well-being and an increase in staff accessing mental and occupational health resources due to the pressures of the job. A small percentage of schools also reported financial worries with one noting that they were not going to be able to even cover the cost of their essentials and were looking at redundancies. Therefore, it is clear that the last few years have been difficult and draining for many staff and urgent change is needed. These results also show that while there is an assumption that life has returned to “normal”, for schools, this is not the case.

Interestingly, in our 2023 round of data collection, we also found that most staff members do not think the national government understands the impact of the pandemic and how to best support them. Teachers and headteachers were asked if they felt supported by the national government with 76% saying that they disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. This suggests that the support the government is providing is not enough and may not be targeting staff member’s needs. 

So what would be actually useful for teachers and headteachers? Most schools have provided resources to support their staff’s mental health and well-being. However, some of the things that would help them more in these difficult times are:

  • Reducing their workload by transferring responsibilities elsewhere, for example, visiting absent children to ensure their well-being. This used to be a local authority role allowing teachers to focus on their roles.

  • Increasing funding and resources for schools and autonomy to implement what is best for children and staff depending on their needs.

  • An increase in funding would also enable them to provide more targeted support for staff members. While the government announced a recovery plan to support schools, reports from the EPI suggest that this may not be enough. Additionally, this support is mainly aimed at academic tutoring support for children, with support for social and emotional learning and for staff members still lacking. 

  • Reducing the external pressures used to check that children catch up and balancing these with school improvement support. Given how difficult the pandemic was, schools need support and as one participant mentioned “Putting increased pressure on a fragile system does not help”.

While the pandemic may not be the only factor contributing to the current crisis, it may be exacerbating other problems. Findings from these interviews and surveys show that more attention should be given to teachers' and headteachers' experiences because they are still living with the negative impacts that were exacerbated by the pandemic. Targeting their needs may therefore contribute to making this profession more attractive again. More information about the ICICLES project can be found here

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