Teacher Wellbeing

I must say at the outset that the #teacher5adaySlowChat idea is a great one. I am honoured to have been asked to chip in with some thoughts on teacher wellbeing.

In this post I hope to spell out concerns I have before suggesting some things that we can do about them, and the challenges that we face in doing so. In this I hope I will find and indeed build common cause with teachers everywhere.

I write this and, no doubt you read this:

not as a journalist nor as a politician

not as a councillor nor as a governor

not as a pundit nor as a consultant

not as an economist nor as a government minister

I speak in the role that we do have – the role that matters most in education and in society…a teacher.

Before there was any such thing as a journalist or a politician…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as a councillor or a governor…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as a pundit or a consultant…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as an economist or a government minister…there were teachers.

And after all those who pontificate have passed from the education scene…there will still be teachers.

“There is no higher calling. Without teachers society would slide back into primitive squalor.” So said the late Ted Wragg.

But how are we teachers, so central to society’s success regarded? How are we treated? How are we supported?

If you are naive enough to believe the pundits and the politicians, then we’re treated quite well. Indeed, the ‘Get Into Teaching’ website preaches that as a “valued professional” you can look forward to:

Job satisfaction, “competitive salary, generous pension”.

It goes on to tell about long holidays in which you can: “pursue your interests, travel and spend time with family and friends.”

Not for them the lower life expectancy that has seen several of my former colleagues die just after retirement.

Not for them the tension and stress brought on by the challenge of behaviour management, increasing workload and poor relationships.

Not for them the conclusion of Mike Finlayson the then Head of Teacher Support Scotland nearly a decade ago that: “The [teaching] profession is approaching a collective nervous breakdown.”

A collective nervous breakdown.

Is that the reward?

The recognition?

For us valued professionals?

Research into teachers’ health and well being shows that the problems of stress-related illness are not recognised, far less looked for and even less still, adequately dealt with.

The now defunct Teacher Support Scotland reported half of teachers finding their jobs very or extremely stressful; nine out of ten believing that the situation had got worse.

More than three quarters of teachers believed that the psychological stress at work had had a knock on effect on their physical well-being. With cases of mental health problems and depression especially bad in male teachers – and higher than amongst health workers.

They also pointed to the link between teacher length of service and burn out, and that with an ageing profession it could only get worse.

In short, we are not just a caring profession. We are a profession in need of care.

But what of the support for teachers given by those who have a duty of care? Employers think that levels of support are adequate yet in reality they are not. Few teachers are aware of employer support mechanisms, indeed they are only used by less than two percent.

Teachers are more likely to suffer from occupational health problems than health workers yet have less occupational health support.

There is a gap between the rhetoric of the pundits and reality of the professionals. It is a gap that leaves teachers stressed not supported with employers who have a duty of care taking a license to ignore. We run the danger of seeing not a profession at ease with itself but a profession on its knees.

My starting point is: ‘teacher working conditions are pupil learning conditions’. How staff in schools are treated impacts upon the pupils in their care. This is not as simple as paying teachers more to ensure improved attainment or achievement. It is about the specific cultures that exist within a school and the prevailing culture within society as to how the teaching profession is valued.

It is my contention that schools as institutions are simply rubbish at looking after the wellbeing of staff. In fact, if we failed our pupils in the same way in which we so badly fail those who work on their behalf, there would be a national scandal.

It is my further contention that schools rely on the fact that they are so bad at staff wellbeing and that consequently, any real attempt to solve the problem may be doomed to fail.

In Radio Scotland’s 1980s ‘Only An Excuse’ mockumentary, they parodied the late James Sanderson. (He was a Saturday night radio phone-in pundit who would ask callers: ‘were you at the game?). They had him criticise a fan who couldn’t get to the game (because it was his wife’s funeral) by asking ‘how long can that take, surely you could have made it along for the second half?’

What was the stuff of 80s satire is now the reality of 21st century attendance management policies. These target maximum staff attendance at work through little other than bullying them into turning up to work regardless of the state of their health.

In schools there is much more we are doing but still need to do to support those pupils who have carer responsibilities at home. We massage deadlines for them, provide additional help or resources to prevent gaps in their learning from developing into chasms.

Yet, when was the last time in your school, a teacher was permitted to complete a bureaucratic task after the imposed deadline due to family commitments or a sick child say? Does our desire to help carers in school stop when they are the teachers? All-too-often it seems to.

Even the normal running of a school is based upon a whole series of lies.

In Scotland, a full-time teacher has a contract that states that they are employed for 35 hours per week. For this work they are paid the appropriate salary for their post. Strangely, the only part of the bargain that is kept is the salary paid. Indeed from both parties, employee and employer there seems little expectation that the other part will be kept.

Each local authority-run Scottish school annually creates a ‘Working Time Agreement’ that pools together all of the available time for all of the work to be done. All of it. Every. Single. Second. Yet, again, nobody sticks to it.

In both the basic contractual relationship and the WTA people are often heard to say things like: ‘Oh, I could never do all of my work in a 35 hours week.”

Worse still, there are some who expect that people will simply ignore any working time commitments. These folk are the workaholic types who can be found bragging about how late they were up working or how many hours they spent doing something.

To them I say this: Good for you! If you choose to give free overtime to your employer, I am sure they are happy. However, don’t expect this of anyone else. Further do not even dare try to brow beat others into giving similar donations.

Such folks are the ones who label others as clock watchers, yet without a trace of irony also talk about having to balance budgets? Labour is a factor of production. A price is paid for it on the basis of an exchange. Both the time given and the price paid for it are fixed. Which part of this needs to be explained further?

Oh, I forgot: the morality of the work of teachers as providers of a service. This makes acquiescence all the easier.

It is all of these pressures that serve too often as barriers to teachers taking ownership over their own well-being.

Yet there is hope. Some local authorities are paying attention to the problems of teacher stress. They see that teacher well-being is fundamental to excellence in education.

There are numerous examples of work based schemes that have the support of teachers because they give support to teachers. More work is being done to speak to teachers about stressors and in making commitments to tackling them.

But more has to change than simply rediscovering the problem or providing a helpline. And it must be done by all who have a duty of care for teachers – working together with teachers.

The culture in our schools must change. Support must be available, reliable and confidential. School managers must be equipped with the skills to create that culture and respond to individual need.

Stress affects us all in our job at different times and in different ways. More must be done to create and then individualise appropriate mechanisms that offer teachers support and coping strategies.

Best practice must be identified and shared.

Fundamentally, the main causes of stress: behaviour management, too much admin and poor relationships must be minimised if not eradicated.

We cannot solve the problem of teacher stress by giving teachers coping strategies and doing nothing about its causes.

Teachers are already doing an excellent job – but even more could be achieved if teachers were given the support to do so.

If we wish to have the best possible learning experience for pupils then we must have the best working conditions for teachers. Central to that is the well-being of teachers.

However, at a time of cuts and with more cuts to come, how much hope is there that things will get better?

The communities which we serve are seeing the closure of the very facilities that help them to be sustainable.

All-too-often it is teachers who step in to fill the void when other services cannot.

But, who will step in to help us?

We may have to count on each other even more than before.

Ted Wragg was right, there is no higher calling than teaching.

We achieve so much and can achieve so much more.

The challenge to our employers, to our colleagues and to ourselves is to work to create the conditions to do so.

This challenge is growing but it is one that we have to meet.

For the sake of our pupils – and ourselves.

A Tale of Two Weeks

Part 1: An Inspector Calls – or rather just texts.

Our school was inspected in the week beginning 28 September. We expected it and it had been preceded by a whole range of activities designed to tighten up our processes and practices, as well as the decor.

It struck me though; just how much of what we do is re-engineered to fit in with the apparent desires of the Inspectors? What happened to making things fit local needs and resources?

I wonder about the improvements that we made in the lead up to the inspection. Did they not serve to say to the pupils that they mattered less than our visitors?

I accept that the prospect of an inspection gets those things done that you had been planning but had not quite gotten around to doing. I wonder if it highlights that there are too many demands upon teachers and schools to get things done that are not directly beneficial to what we do?

My own experience of the inspection was minimal. I enjoyed only a brief conversation in the corridor with the team leader.  I had an observation of an S1 class and was in a focus group on our school’s excellent work on Employability and, that was it.

This was a huge contrast with the last inspection. Indeed, maybe it was my experience of the previous inspection that protected me from excessive advanced fear of this one…

It felt less an inspection and more a fleeting visit. The previous inspection seemed like an operation without anaesthetic and this was a visit to the GP. I respect fully of course that the exercise was significantly different for those in our senior management team!

I was due to take part in a further focus group of Principal Teachers but I had to pull out as we had gotten word that my wife’s maternal grandfather was gravely ill.

Part 2: Death and Life, Failure and Hope

The final week of term was a mix of great highs and great lows.

On the Thursday there was the Dearest Scotland book launch. I had submitted my letter and backed the Kickstarter and this was when all the efforts put in by so many people came to fruition. It also meant that like a TeachMeet I got to meet some folks from my Twitter feed!

Despite being on or in a variety of media, there seems something very special about having your words appear in a book.

I wrote my letter on a Mac. I then emailed it before it was placed on the website  and on my blog. At no point was it anything other than a set of 1s and 0s. But to hold a book and be able to point to a couple of pages that were written by me seemed to have a huge resonance.

Maybe this is why for years countless folks rushed out to get a copy of the local paper when their wee niece or grandson appeared in it. Is it better to have a clipping than to point at a webpage?

Who knows, maybe it is down to the possibility, decades from now of undertaking a re-run of the JR Hartley Yellow Pages ad?

The bounce I gained from that evening was huge but my fun was cut short just before 11 o’clock by a tweet from Frances Coppola:

“So sad. Greek mother and son find dead baby washed up on beach, say they will bury him as if he was a member of their own family.”

My Dearest Scotland letter focussed on meeting the needs of children today and future generations.

Yet, as I write the children of others are being washed up on shores within my continent.  Their parents are demonised for wanting to escape from war or poverty.

What is it that allows us to put up with this continuing tragedy, or permits our leaders to pander to headlines rather than humanity?

It’s us. We allow it. It’s our failure.

It’s the same failure that meant that not long after that tweet and the sadness it brought I was back up to normal.

Or, maybe it’s just me.

I suffer from moodiness that can mean moving all-too-quickly from peaks to troughs and back again.

Indeed the regained positivity itself was cut short on the last morning of term by the sound of the phone ringing.

The news was that after being at death’s door the week before, and despite a recovery, a great man was now gone. This gave rise to many emotions: sadness that a life was at an end but gladness that his suffering and pain were now over.

The self-centred part of me also wondered just how to explain death to a 3-year-old. How to explain no more Great Granda cuddles and laughs. Maybe in this regard those that have faith have it a bit easier; death is not death, it’s not an end, it is simply a step to another and eternal life.

Even that pondering was forgotten with the ‘distraction’ of the working day. It was also helped by a man from Germany turning up to work at Anfield.

Like most Liverpool fans I have been swept up by the positivity, the hope generated by the appointment of Jürgen Klopp as manager. Time will tell if this turns out to be what is hoped – the start of something big, or if it is just a false dawn after so many others.

In this regard, football is like life. We celebrate the wins, despair at the losses and somehow manage to move on to the next game. Every season we start with renewed hope.

In school, it’s no different. Regardless of the exam results we start off with classes with hope. We hope we’ll do better, that pupils will learn more and enjoy greater success. Yet, there are set backs on the way. The class or student that doesn’t quite gel with you, the deadlines you can’t meet through workload and *horror* family ‘getting in the way’ or the myriad incidents, lessons or whatever that make up life as a teacher. We try to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again the next lesson.

We face the challenges of our own personal and our working lives. In doing so, we experience and are part of the lives of so many others: the pupil who has suffered bereavement in the same class as the pupil who has a new baby sister; the colleague under pressure and the one who has at long last got that promotion.

What is it that allows us to work through these things? One thing for sure is that it is getting harder for many teachers to do so.

I wonder, are we serious about teacher agency and autonomy? Will it be the reflection that teachers themselves undertake as well as those with colleagues and pupils that determine next steps?  Or will we be continuing to wait for an external agency to come and visit? Worse still, will the government press ahead with the utter stupidity of a new form of standardised testing?

What is it that allows us to put up with these things, or permits our leaders to pander to headlines rather than pedagogy?

Will it be us? Will we allow it? If so, will it will be our failure, when we face so many challenges just to get by?

Maybe if the work of inspectors was re-engineered to fit the desires of schools and teachers and the pupils they served.

Maybe if workload and our contr(actual) obligations matched what we were paid to do.

Maybe if the focus was on meeting the needs of pupils rather than them or us jumping through hoops or ticking boxes our schools would be places where hope blossomed.

Ending at the Beginning.

In what will probably be the final [directly] SSTA-related speech/blog post, I’m ending with the first speech I made at an SSTA Congress. It was the last motion discussed in 2002 and I had the graveyard slot at the end of the day when everyone was wanting away and home.

My motion called for the ending of PFI, and here is as close to the text of my remarks as I can provide. As the Conservative government sells off more of the state’s assets and continues with austerity, it seems timely to recall it.

Congress, the case against PFI rests upon three simple grounds:

First, it was corrupt in its inception, second, it is uneconomic in its operation, and third it is damaging in its effects on our public services.

Put simply, It means jobs for the boys, profits for the city and privatisation for our schools – and all at the expense of our pupils.

The Private Finance Initiative is one of a whole host of schemes which under the guise of benefiting the public sector plunder it.

As reported by Paul Foot on channel 4:

PFI in the UK was the brainchild of a committee set up under the Tories in the early 1990s. A key member of which was the deputy managing director of General Electric – a man called Malcolm Bates.

Despite being vehemently against PFI before the 1997 election, after it Labour brought in a top businessman to advise them on PFI and came ‘round to his views, he was …Malcolm Bates.

A whole series of further PFI schemes were launched one of the largest of which was the Edinburgh Royal infirmary. It was built by a consortium including BICC, who’s Board was joined by… Malcolm Bates. Indeed, so happy with him were the government, that Malcolm soon became Sir Malcolm.

It’s just one example amongst many of people advising or promoting PFI to the government who after the deal’s been done, end up working for the beneficiaries.

PFI allows the few to get their snouts in the trough – it’s only the start of the scandalous waste of public money that is the Private Finance Initiative.

Even though the projects involving schools are relatively new on the scene, the lessons from these and from other parts of the public sector are clear for all to see.

The first waste of money is the fact that for a private consortium to borrow money it costs more than it would for the government to do so. Then come the set-up costs for the private sector including millions being spent on financial and legal advisors; prominent amongst which are our job-sizing friends at PriceWaterhouse Coopers.

PFI supporters insist that it presents a cheaper alternative to the public sector due to the risks involved in building and running facilities being transferred to the private sector.

However, the reality is of the manipulation of comparisons between public and private in order to create a false impression of value for money. In the case of the Glasgow schools contract, Unison has pointed out that the risk factor of building by the public sector was calculated at £70 million to cover up the fact that the council would be paying nearly £35 million more by going down the PFI route.

In the case of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary – the full business case presented by the NHS trust did not even bother to compare project costs on a like for like basis. The effect of this according to independent analysts will see the project costing an extra £6 million per year over the next 15 years.

The recent controversy involving the PPP scheme to privately build and operate 3 prisons in Scotland show clearly the attempts of the Executive to pretend that there are substantial savings to be made in pressing ahead with PPP.

The clams of a £700m gap between public and private provision were rubished by independent analysts who cut through the biased assumptions of the PPP scheme.

In any case, the estimated private costs soon change after the deals have been done. In the Glasgow schools project the year one accommodation costs grew from an initial estimate of £24 million to over £36 million.

Fundamentally, risk is not transferred to the private sector as if a project fails the public sector will have to bail it out. Witness the additional funds needed to complete the new air traffic control system. Witness as well the additional funds needed to properly install computer systems for the immigration service, the passport agency and now, the Child Support Agency. Witness PFI and witness a total waste of money.

Incredibly though, when a council believes that a contract should be terminated due to the private sector  not keeping to its side of the bargain – it has to compensate the PFI contractors for contract termination – even if the PFI consortium are to blame!

When you add in the fact that private companies are out to maximise profit – the costs of PPP rise even further above public sector provision – and all for the sake of transferring public assets to the private sector.

PFI is backdoor privatisation which puts profits before prisoners, profits before patients and profits before pupils.

PFI supporters insist that PFI is the only deal in town  but Congress, under PFI rules if a council goes to the Executive saying that it wants PFI because it doesn’t have any alternative – they would be barred from obtaining PFI in the first place!

PFI supporters also say that its the only option, as the money would not otherwise be there to pay for these projects. But Congress, the current account surpluses of recent years are much greater than the value of the PFI deals which have been struck. The money is already there its just not getting used to provide better public services.

There simply is no economic case for PFI – but it’s the damage to public services that is the final part of the overwhelming case against PFI.

In order to make their costs less than the public sector, corners are cut.

Any cost savings can only be made from reducing the quality of the resource, the service provided or the conditions for the workers,

In our prisons it will mean less rehabilitation schemes – and an increase in crime. In our hospitals it means less beds and higher waiting lists. In our schools it means less facilities and more stress for teachers.

In hospital PFI projects an average cut of 33% in bed numbers has been made, in school projects facilities are cut back. In the Fife PFI scheme already, the consortium are putting old equipment in the new schools.

PFI brings the promise of the new but delivers the reality of the old.

The increase in the accommodation costs in Glasgow alone has resulted in the loss of seven swimming pools, many classrooms and many staff common rooms.

We are seeing more buildings with less facilities – and are paying for the privilege. Indeed this is further compounded by stories coming from those working in the new facilities that the basic fabric of the new buildings is not up to much in the first place.

The contracts last anything up to 30 years but the needs of communities in relation to school buildings has changed greatly over the last 30 years, who can say with confidence that they wont change radically over the next 30? But PFI forces us into inflexible deals over the long term.

Rather than investing in public services, PFI seeks to privatise them. Rather than investing in the future, PFI mortgages it. Rather than investing in value for money, PFI wastes money.

PFI puts public money which should be spent providing better education into the hands of profiteers. But it doesn’t have to be a choice between PFI and leaky windows between PFI and crumbling buildings, between PFI and poor resources.

There are alternatives to privatisation which are economic, viable and indeed desirable – they simply involve the government moving away from its dogmatic desire to line the pockets of the private sector at the expense of the public.

Putting money into the troughs for the snouts of the private profiteers cannot be, never has been and never will be in the interests of public services.

Congress, the pupils in our schools must come before the profits of big business.

The executive must put education before profit.

The chancellor must think again and get rid of these PFI schemes before they do any more damage that they’ve already done.

I move.

Prophets of Rage

“You’re quite hostile.”

“Hey man, I gotta right to be hostile, ‘cos my people are being persecuted.”

Public Enemy: ‘Prophets of Rage’.

“Just how does spouting hate speech about the opposition highlight the new [and better] politics you say you wish to establish?”

From a tweet of mine the other day:

Perhaps too often I am sarcastic – and too sarcastic at that.

I appreciate that sarcasm per se and my own sarcasm (usually an attempt at humour) is not always a nice thing.

Similarly, satire when done well, can be brilliant at exposing the pompous. It can reduce those we fear to figures of fun. It can go awry too.

During the referendum campaign we had much discussion of the CyberNat – the keyboard crusaders who were online to counter the media bias and stick it to the ‘No’ side. In my view, much of it was exaggerated but I accept that there were some examples of shocking online abuse to be found. [NB. The worst I got called was a ‘porridge gobbler’ from someone who suggested that Scotland was owned by the UK.]

We are now not only in the post-indyref period but also are in the period pre-indyref2.

How then, is that new Scotland, that presumably folks are still seeking, going to be won?

Will rage at the continuing injustice and inequality around us help?

To me, it depends on the target of this rage and the tactics used.

I recently saw a post about Kezia Dugdale that highlighted the first three letters in her surname.

Is this the new Scotland? Is this satire? Is this the level of debate in our society?

Are the people we wish to persuade in a future referendum simply to be blasted as ‘Red Tories’ because they still value their membership of the Labour party?

Surely, the best way is to focus any rage we have on developing a consensus for a better Scotland? Let our anger motivate us to find the solutions to the complex problems we face rather than resorting to sniping at others.

The challenge for the political parties that have ballooned in size since September is to channel the energy from their new recruits into positive optimism.

I do wonder though that when the digital activists move from campaigning on a cause to campaigning for an individual political party will we see that positivity?

Significant Others

Once again I have the honour of having a column printed in TESS. You can see the published version here: https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6450353

Recently I visited the National Museum of Scotland with my now 3 year old daughter and her 3 month old sister in tow. As we whizzed around I tried to take in the marvels that have helped shape the nation we are and our place in the world.

I wondered what things taking place over the course of my young daughter’s lives will find their way into such museums. Will our soon-to-be obsolete phones, and still uninvented technologies, be joined by some of our attitudes?

Will we see racism, Islamophobia, homophobia or ‘poverty porn’ confined to the past?

Despite commitment, action and progress, we have a long way to go.

In September, 9 local authorities revealed nearly 1,000 racist incidents involving primary school pupils had been recorded since 2011.

The real figure is likely to be much higher.

One of the councils reporting was my own, Fife, which post-Macpherson launched the ‘A Mixed Fife, A Richer Life’ campaign. This was to highlight and challenge racist community attitudes and was a campaign I was proud to support.

Yet, at the same time, I was teaching pupils in an S1 modern studies course that a same-sex partnership was just as valid a family relationship as a heterosexual one. This of course breached the offensive Section 28/2A.

Anti-racist legislation is clear. Further, our parliament has passed laws allowing my daughters to chose whom they wish to marry – regardless of sexuality. Yet, are our schools safe places for LGBT youth? Would a pupil or even a teacher coming out face respect or ridicule or worse?

Would our institutional response equate to the stance we take against racism?

Our curriculum aims to develop in pupils: compassion, wisdom, justice and integrity. Our teachers are committed to the value of social justice through the GTCS standards.

However, the recent success of certain political parties in England challenges the values that we wish our young people to demonstrate and our teachers to promote.

Moreover, recent Ipsos MORI research showed that the British people make wrong assumptions about key public policy statistics.

These include a vast overestimation of the proportion of the British population which is immigrant (24% compared with an actual 13%) or Muslim (21% as opposed to the real figure of 5%). The overestimation of the extent of unemployment was also marked (estimated as 24% when in fact it is only 7%).

They are much more likely to see these things as ‘problems’.

I have no doubt that such misconceptions are fed by tabloid frenzy and political pandering.

These misconceptions are likely to also be prevalent amongst young people too.

However, is a pupil that suggests there is ‘too much’ immigration guilty of racism and a victim of bias? How many pupils stigmatise those claiming benefits – yet live in deprived communities? How many pupils have no faith yet show ‘concern’ over the apparent size of different faith groups and its implications?

Many of the young people we now teach have grown up in a society where media and pundits have demonised immigrants, asylum seekers, followers of Islam and the poor.

To challenge this, in my view, we must go further than point to our values.

Our young people can only be helped to identify and challenge the inaccuracies in the media and the inequalities in their communities if they have the tools to do so.

That can only come through having a much greater part of the curriculum devoted to achieving this – with appropriately qualified and motivated staff to teach it.

As LGBT Youth Scotland recently campaigned https://www.lgbtyouth.org.uk/shh, it also requires us collectively to no longer be silent on such matters.