An Education System Under Stress

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 10 December 2018
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

In the context of Stress Awareness Week November 5th – 9th we need to revisit the situation in our schools with teachers and school leaders under ever increasing stress. In August 2017 I wrote in this column about the escalating problems of low teacher morale as a result of budget cuts, increasing class sizes and difficulties of pupil indiscipline. A year on, things are certainly no better. Even with the removal of the 1% public sector pay cap, teacher pay increases and money for schools can only be found from existing funding allocations and that seems a distant prospect.

Last week BBC Northern Ireland Education Correspondent Robbie Meredith reported that 446 schools are now in budget deficit and in a crisis situation with some unable even to afford substitute cover for vital staff training

A spokesperson from the Education Authority acknowledged that schools faced unprecedented pressures: “Many school leaders have told us of the intolerable strain that the deteriorating financial position has placed upon them." This strain on our education system shows also in terms of current industrial disputes over union claims that some teachers are in a working environment where the management practices are undermining their wellbeing.

So how do school leaders find a balance between their responsibility to deliver management oversight and accountability and still ensure staff welfare? Professor Gary Cooper Chair of Organizational Psychology and Health at the Manchester Business School argues that we need line managers with high emotional intelligence to create a workplace culture which is focused on employee wellbeing. Workers need to feel valued and appreciated, he claims.

The Guardian newspaper highlighted the issue in January 2018:

The article quotes Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, who warns of an “epidemic of stress, given that altogether 1.3 million days have been taken off by teachers for stress and mental health reasons in the last four years. She points out that teachers work more unpaid overtime than any other profession, routinely working 55 hours or over per week and school leaders routinely work over 60 hours per week in the context of a punitive and non-productive accountability system.”

One assistant head at a large inner-city primary school is also quoted as saying that she felt forced to leave teaching due to the relentless workload, including the need to plan in immense detail in addition to meetings, marking and handling of questions from colleagues, all of which fell outside school hours. These reports echo the situation discussed in BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show last year. The hope then was that the DUP “support arrangement” with the Government would deliver a one billion pound funding lifeline. Given the current Brexit chaos, access to this or further money looks unlikely. So school leaders are once again on their own in trying to ameliorate the stress levels on staff and work within declining budgets.

The Education Support Partnership has also found high levels of stress in the profession. Their 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index revealed that 67% of education professionals describe themselves as stressed. They offer some practical techniques for teachers and education staff on how to handle stress:

So, can we translate this advice into practical steps to help ourselves reduce this threat to mental health and wellbeing in schools?

The Education Support Partnership suggests firstly that priorities are worked out. Given that collaborative working and inclusion of staff in decision making is standard good practice, discussion and agreed prioritisation of work between staff and management will surely help. Logic demands that with fewer resources schools cannot deliver previous levels of output. Putting the tasks in order of importance and crediting the school staff for all that is done rather than making lists of what has not been possible is vital. Staff relationships and personal concerns must figure in these priorities too. Problems with inter-personal relations greatly add to stress and potentially threaten wellbeing, perhaps more than anything else.

Identifying stress situations and pressure points in advance in the school term can also help avoid problems. Enlisting staff help to make a list of events that leave people drained is perhaps a useful strategy. Additionally finding one or two ways to reduce the stress for each would also be a proactive step.

School leaders need particular attention in this conversation as they are perhaps the people most in danger from these current stress pressures. Given that the job is inherently demanding, these current intractable pressures could be putting school leader’s health and well being at risk.

Writing in the Journal of Social Psychology of Education in 2002 Issac A Friedman argues that;

“The principal’s work-world is characterized by overwhelming responsibilities, information perplexity, and emotional anxiety.”

So given the lack of proper funding and intervention in education from government in Northern Ireland, inevitably the result is increased local decision-making and school-based management, placing even greater responsibility on the principal, but without the resources to resolve the issues. Whenever the key needs of a school are not fulfilled satisfactorily, principals naturally doubt their own leadership abilities, and as Friedman puts it;

“... a sense of professional and personal unaccomplishment may ensue, stress arises, and without proper support and proper mediating processes and means, burnout is most likely to occur.”

NAHT NI highlighted the plight of school leaders in a survey back in 2015.  They reported that just over half of those surveyed said work-related stress had a high impact on their health.

The union accused the Department of Education and the employing authorities of "failing in their duty of care to safeguard health and wellbeing".

While the department said that a range of measures were in place to address such issues, more than half of head teachers questioned said that the new Education Authority was providing poor support to schools. Head teachers must be given the support to help them manage this difficult situation. When we talk about the damage to schools caused by government policy we should remember that we are also talking about the damage to people, that most precious resource that is our dedicated body of teachers and school leaders.


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This article is correct at 10/12/2018

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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