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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

A Culture of Wellbeing: Stopping the Runaway Train

Last week saw the release of Education Support’s annual Teacher Wellbeing Index for 2023.  If you haven’t already read it, you can find it here.  Summarising the responses of over 3000 education professionals, the survey provides an interesting non-experimentally longitudinal analysis of our sector. 

 

The evidence presented by TWIX 2023 is highly suggestive of a profession in crisis mode and this post addresses the recurrent theme of ‘culture’ in the report.  Culture is often understood as “how we do things around here” and, by this standard, the answer would appear to be “not very well” at either an institutional level or across the culture of the education sector.

 

Let’s start with the institutional level.  The report states that there is a “poor organisational culture across many schools and colleges”.  This is based upon the finding that 56% of respondents said that their school’s culture had a negative impact on their wellbeing, with 46% saying that there was a lack of school support for colleagues experiencing mental health and wellbeing issues.  This is a situation that appears to be worsening rapidly, with 13% more respondents in 2023 saying that their organisation’s culture was having a negative impact on their wellbeing than was the case in the 2022 report.

 

One striking aspect is that senior leaders (26% of respondents) reflected the overall data with 55% by saying that their institution’s culture was having a negative impact on their wellbeing, a rise of 10% on the previous report.  Let that sink in for a moment. The people within organisations responsible for the culture of that organisation are reporting concerns about the culture of that organisation.  What are we to make of this?  And what are we to make of the seemingly contradictory picture that 51% of senior leaders feel supported with their mental health and wellbeing by their organisation, a rise of 8% on 2022’s data? 

 

Two thoughts spring to mind. 

 

The first, the more troubling of the two, is that school culture feels – in the minds of school leaders – to be something of a runaway train, out of their control.  This could be the result of the challenges within the profession over the last year (attendance, behaviour, the cost-of-living crisis, staff absence, strikes) which were, to a greater or lesser extent, out of the control of school leaders.  An alternative hypothesis is that the centralisation of resources within multi-academy trusts, including HR processes, alongside a trend of declining resources exacerbated by rampant inflation, has created a sense of isolation from decision-making by nominal school leaders.  A third observation is that school leaders feel increasingly constrained by the national ‘culture’ across the education sector, one that I will pick up on later in this post.

 

The second thought that springs to mind, the more positive one, is related to the paradoxical findings of the survey that school leaders feel increasingly supported by their organisations even though they feel increasingly challenged by the culture of their organisations.  Here, my hypothesis is that the data may indicate a movement in the past year to better support school leaders which has a lag factor.  To put it another way, we have become increasingly aware of the impact of school and system culture upon leaders in the past year.  The TWIX 2022 report demonstrated a particular need to address this, as did the responses by many to the coverage of the death of Ruth Perry.  Such awareness, and institutional and systemic responses to it, may have brought school leader wellbeing higher up the priority list for actions so that they feel better supported without that support having ameliorated the causes of leadership wellbeing issues. 

 

If these two thoughts hold reasonably true, there are some problems down the line.  The first of these, demonstrated in the TWIX 2023 report, is that teacher wellbeing has now displaced school leader wellbeing as being of the most concern.  How can schools mobilise the same support for their teachers (only 43% of whom feel supported compared to 51% of leaders) in times of significant resource constraint?  The second, which flows from this, is about how far the system can pivot to meet the needs of an increasingly disenfranchised staff body before a recruitment and retention crisis completely overwhelms educational provision.

 

On this last point, the figures in the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2023 report are stark.  45% of school staff report symptoms of stress, compared to 33% in the general population.  28% of educators report symptoms of depression, compared to 16% of adults more widely.  The Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Score (WEMWBS) for the survey’s participants are significantly lower than those for the general population:  by almost 8 points in England, by around 5 points for Scotland, and by a little over 3 points for Wales.  School staff feeling often or always lonely at work is 14% in this survey, double the 7% rate for the population more broadly.  As mentioned earlier, this feels like a runaway train beyond our control.

 

Based on these findings, and upon two other publications produced recently, Education Support conclude that “the external pressure and demand on the system is shaping the culture within schools”.  They point to how a lack of capacity for wider social services, an increase in destitution, and inadequate resource provision for SEND and more widely are creating “dissatisfaction across the community” that schools serve and which in turn “makes schools and colleges tough places to work”.  The inspection service adds to this already significant burden with 71% of respondents saying that inspectorates have a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing (the figure is 73% for Ofsted in England). 

 

Whilst the culture in schools may not have a ringing endorsement from the survey, these figures around the wider, systemic culture are even more challenging.  Which leads to an interesting quandary for school leaders:  can their schools buck a nationwide trend in poor culture within education?  Can they gain some measure of control over the runaway train?

 

The answer is, I think, a tentative ‘yes’.  Underneath some of the headline data are a couple of findings that offer hope.  The first is that schools can mitigate the challenges faced by their staff.  Respondents who reported experiencing mental health challenges in the survey but felt well supported by their schools were far less likely to experience symptoms (73% compared to 90% of those not well supported).  The second hopeful finding is that schools whose staff experience is of being part of a positive culture are far less likely to report symptoms, just 20% of respondents in comparison to 62% of those who experienced their school’s culture negatively.

 

In summary then, with regards to culture, the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2023 appears to show a desperate situation at both an institutional and systemic level.  A runaway train isn’t easily stopped, but there are signs that school leaders can still make a difference.  The data in TWIX 2023 suggests that schools can reduce by up to two-thirds the experiencing of symptoms of poor mental health and wellbeing by their staff through the provision of better support.  They can also mitigate the experiencing of symptoms by those with existing mental health challenges.  These two factors alone might benefit schools more widely by helping reduce the amount of staff absence and its knock-on effects. 

 

As for school leaders themselves, the data suggests that they are feeling better supported by their schools.  This may not have halted the decline in their overall wellbeing, but it is an important start and, if we are honest, the only approach genuinely within the control of individual leadership teams and their members.  The challenge, as I see it from this report, is how school leaders can continue to mobilise their limited resources so that the same support is there for all staff.  Leadership buy-in is crucial to such a project, as is the daily renewal of commitment to such an enterprise in the face of a sustained challenge from those areas that are not directly within school leadership control. 

 

Mind Your Head Education Consultancy offers multiple services to support and sustain school leaders so that they, in turn can support and sustain their staff.  Through providing reflective supervision and school improvement services, we can help your team focus on, buy into and model to others what is important to your culture.  The Teacher Wellbeing Index 2023 confirms our view that staff wellbeing is the most important a cultural issue right now.  Use the contact form or email us at mind.your.head@outlook.com for more information about how we can support you in supporting yourself and your colleagues.

 

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