Wales TUC Conference Speech

21 May

Below is my speech to the Wales TUC conference in support of the NUT motion calling for action on stress related illness in schools.  I’m pleased to say the motion was passed unanimously.

President, Conference,

It has been pleasing to see a lot of progress made in recent years in tackling the stigma that is attached to mental health issues.  As motion 18 notes the Welsh Government have taken some positive steps in the guidance and support they have offered in general terms.  This is an issue that has, for some time in Wales, been given prime political attention on a cross-party basis and I think we can say that there is a greater understanding and sympathy amongst the general public.  Tribute should rightly be paid to organisations such as Time to Change Wales, who have helped to break down barriers and empower people to come forward and seek help.  However, one place where we are increasingly failing to get to grips with this issue is in supporting our teaching workforce.

Between January 1st 2013 and December 31st of the same year, over 50,000 teaching days were lost due to teachers being forced out of work as a result of stress related illnesses.  A similar amount of stress induced leave was also taken in 2012.  In 12 of the 22 Welsh local authorities last year, we actually saw in increase in the number of days lost due to this concern.  Not only has this issue not been given the attention it deserves, it is becoming an increasing problem in many of our communities.  Yes, we may be talking more about issues of mental health and their impact, but are we really doing enough to prevent them where possible or support those that suffer back to work?

The human impact of this crisis, and it is a crisis, should not be underestimated.  Individuals off work due to stress related mental health issues do not wish to be out of the working environment.  For many of them it is something they struggle to overcome and end up leaving the profession all together.  Can we really afford to continue to lose high quality and experienced teachers with such regularity?  At a time where pay and pension cuts by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Westminster Government are making it increasingly more difficult to attract and retain the brightest and best to the teaching profession, we simply cannot allow a situation to continue where so many individuals are worked to the point of mental exhaustion.  This is not to mention those who are suffering in silence, too afraid to come forward and ask for help because the impact it may have on how they are perceived by colleagues, parents and pupils.  The stigma we can be proud of chipping away at within our society still exists in classrooms up and down Wales.

Let’s also make no mistake about how damaging this is to our education sector.  Those lost teaching days are the equivalent of having an additional 258 teachers working in classrooms in Wales.  Just image how that can help improve attainment.  The role it could play in reducing class sizes or ensuring greater continuity of teaching for pupils in Wales. 

The supply cost, at a conservative estimate, amounts to between £8.5m – £9m pounds taken out of our schools.  Given the underfunding we already experience, this is money we can ill afford to lose.  Knowing of teachers who are putting their hands into their own pockets to buy pens and paper for their pupils; who are teaching in dilapidated and often unhealthy buildings; who are teaching with outdated equipment no longer fit for purpose, I know they would dearly love to see some of that finance spent on more productive purposes.

The problem we are faced with is clear and needs to be addressed.  This motion is not asking for a revolution to take place.  It is simply a case of getting to grips with the core reasons why stress related illnesses manifest themselves in the first instance.  60 hour weeks are becoming increasingly the norm for the teaching profession.  This huge workload pressure is simply unsustainable.

The move to a target, rather than child centred policy agenda, is creating a low morale and an unmotivated workforce.  This does nothing to raise standards.  At the same time the high stakes approach of policies such as school banding and standardised testing are also contributing negatively.

The proposal to reduce Estyn inspection notice periods, which will only further add to the occurrence of stress related illnesses, does not bare thinking about.

The Welsh Government, working with local authorities and regional consortia to put this right, can improve the mental health of the teaching profession and at the same time save money and ultimately create an ever improving education system for our children.  We can radically reduce the pressures on the teaching profession, thus avoiding so much lost time due to stress, while supporting those that do fall ill to ensure that they are able to get back into the classroom with renewed confidence and enthusiasm. 

Investing the effort to resolve this today will create a better more sustainable workforce for our pupils tomorrow.  Tackling this issue is a huge win-win for everyone.

I urge you to support the motion.

Thank you

Stress related sick leave

Conference notes that the number of teaching days lost to stress related illnesses between January 1st 2013-December 31st 2013 was a staggeringly high 50,277.22.  During this period 12 of the 22 local authorities in Wales saw an increase in the number of teachers that have been forced into taking stress related leave.

Conference is concerned that increasing workload pressure as well as cuts to pay and pensions are a significant factor behind these statistics.  Conference is further concerned that potentially reducing Estyn inspection notice periods will lead to further pressure being placed on all school based staff.

Conference calls on the Welsh Government to work with local authorities and regional consortia to tackle the causes of stress related illnesses at school level as well as examining what policies can be put in place to avoid such illnesses manifesting themselves in the first instance while supporting back to work recovery programmes.

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