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Mental Health: a case for placing it centre-stage

18 Apr

I           The Health and Education Select Committee

In the last week of March 2017, MPs on the Health and Education Select Committee received oral evidence from experts in the final session of their joint inquiry into the role of education in preventing mental health problems in children and young people.

Baroness Tyler of Enfield, the chair of the values-based child and adolescent mental-health system commission, Lord Layard, director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics, and Natasha Devon, a former government mental health champion, among others, presented evidence.

The main points raised during the session included the following.

  1. Embedding well-being and mental health awareness across the whole school was very important. Baroness Tyler explained that well-being in the school context includes parents and teachers. She welcomed the move to place Sex and Relationships education (SRE) on a statutory footing and called for compulsory personal, social, economic and health education (PSHE) in all schools.
  2. Senior leaders should be encouraged to measure how schools were influencing the well-being of children through surveys, and their integration into school improvement plans. Lord Layard asked the committee to run a pilot with volunteer schools to re-balance the present focus on measuring academic performance only.
  3. The impact of school funding pressures on mental health should be measured. Natasha Devon highlighted the effect of cuts on access to school support services including counsellors, to the enrichment curriculum and to subjects like sports, drama and music which support positive mental health.

The cross-party group of MPs on the Committee questioned ministers on their record on education and children’s mental health. Edward Timpson MP, Minister of State for Vulnerable Children and Families, said: “There was still much to be done” to address patchy and variable access to mental health services for young people across the country.

The MPs involved recognised that governing boards are responsible for promoting the well-being of children and young people and required to ensure that they set a supportive ethos and culture.

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‘NowTeach’ seeks to lure industrial compatriots into teaching

1 Jan

I        Teacher recruitment crisis

The number of teachers leaving the profession has increased by 11% over three years according to a report from the National Audit Office. The shortfall in teachers has been exacerbated by ministers failing to hit their recruitment targets for four consecutive years (despite a £700m annual bill for their efforts). More secondary school classes are being taught by teachers without relevant post-A-Level qualifications in their subjects – especially in physics.

When The Guardian did a straw poll of teachers, one told reporters, “With fewer teachers in certain subjects, some teachers have had to move over to a different department or straddle more than one. This can be a good thing if you have a brilliant teacher who can pick up a topic quickly but, more often than not, a teacher is being asked to slide into a different teaching area and offered no support.

“Maths is my subject and I know a great deal of Maths teachers without a degree. I am not saying this is the worst thing, but not having an A-level in Maths is certainly a problem for most of them. Those teachers tend to be the ones trotting out the same error-filled lessons and are understandably scared and insecure when confronted with their own lack of expertise.”

A headteacher said: “We now have a situation where it’s so hard to find a good head of department in certain subjects that if you promote someone to an assistant headship, for example, you have to ask them (sic) to continue doing their (sic) old job too. So someone might be a head of department and an assistant head and teach a 90% timetable. This is driving people out as it puts them under so much pressure.”

A member of the leadership team at another school remarked: “A shortage of teachers means that those higher up in the profession don’t have time to help less-qualified teachers. Students as well as teachers are being let down because of it.  When there’s an observation or a department is being inspected, your heart sinks because you know certain teachers aren’t going to be perceived as good enough.  This is especially the case when you have a supply or agency teacher in as they (sic) tend to get even less support.

“Inconsistency is, therefore, a big issue.  In certain subjects that are harder to recruit for, you might have 10-15 staff members of varying standards and levels of training and support. It’s probably true that none of them gets enough support.  I have waited more than six months to get feedback from a lesson observation by an assistant headteacher – by the time I got it, it was worse than useless.”

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Boost staff morale to control expenditure in schools/academies

28 Aug

I        Staff: Human Resources v Resourceful Humans

With the financial noose tightening around the necks of schools/academies, governing bodies have to keep a close check on expenditure and find innovative ways of raising funds.   Staff costs consume the lion’s share of a school budget – anything from 80% to 85%, though one school, with which I worked a few years ago, bucked the trend by spending 102% of its budget share on staff salaries.  The governors leaned heavily on parents – through voluntary contributions – and charities to make up the shortfall in the overspend.

Spending 80% of the budget on staff is unsurprising given that staff members are the most valuable resources of a school.   For governors to keep a firm rein on this area of spending, they don’t have to operate curmudgeonly.  However, they should ensure that the ambience at the school invigorates and motivates staff.   There are sufficient pressures on teachers, in particular, to make this exercise challenging.  They are subject to myriad demands coming from disparate sources.  The mix is toxic: government wishes, parental expectations, Ofsted inspections, changes to the curriculum and assessment, league tables – to name just a few.   The over-emphasis on data has led some taking their eyes of the ball – i.e. the children, for whom the overwhelming number of teachers became teachers in the first place.

The pressures have taken the stuffing out of many, so that, come the holidays, they collapse in a heap.  However, in term time, teachers who are the victims of the hot house environments of their schools, fall ill over varying periods of time, causing their governing bodies concern as they have to find extra monies to cover for their absences.

Education data consultants, SchoolDash, analysed teacher absences for the academic year 2014/15 using the workforce census data published by the Department for Education (DfE).  They discovered that in primary schools/academies rated “Inadequate” by Ofsted, teacher absences averaged 9.97 days compared to 6.26 days for those working in “Outstanding” schools/academies.   In secondary schools/academies rated “Inadequate” the average teacher absences was 8.94 days compared to 5.72 days for the outstanding ones.

The good news is that for teachers taking sick leave, the average number of days lost was 7.6 – down from 7.9 the previous year.

Primary teachers were more likely to go off sick in the West Midlands (55%) and least likely in the north-east (48%).  At secondary level, almost two-third of teachers in the south-west (65%) took time off last year, compared to 56% in the north-east.  However, teachers in the north-east were more likely to be absent because of sickness for longer periods of time.  The lowest average number of days off by region was achieved by London’s primary teachers, i.e. 6.03 days and the capital’s secondary teachers – 5.97%.

The schools suffer in other ways, even if they have the financial wherewithal to hire supply teachers, in that the stand-ins are not that good, consequently, not welcomed by the pupils whom they have to teach.

If schools/academies are to flourish, they need to promote staff happiness. This does not mean that the atmosphere should be one described by Tennyson in his poem on the Lotos-Eaters where “slumber is more sweet than toil” and brother mariners are exhorted to rest and wander no more.

Even if our schools/academies are not haemorrhaging teachers out of the profession, ignoring their welfare is detrimental to the quality of education we are keen to promote.   Several of our school leaders, who themselves are under considerable pressures, pass these pressures onto their staff contributing to the low morale and driving them to sick beds and doctors’ surgeries.  Headteachers want the best for their schools.  However, the methods deployed are sometimes counterproductive and the outcome is plummeting staff morale leading to absences which puts pressure on school budgets.  Continue reading