‘Everyone should be concerned with teaching days lost due to stress’ – Western Mail Article

9 Jun

The pressure of excessive workloads is a common complaint amongst teachers.  There are a variety of contributing factors to this consistent problem and it is having a devastating impact on the profession.  Increasingly unmanageable class sizes; punitive and meaningless accountability measures; budget cuts leading to redundancies; teachers covering too many subjects or responsibilities due to understaffing; initiative overload, the list goes on and on and sadly there are only more and more things being added to the daily grind.

The impact of these unsustainable workload pressures is that last year 47,283 teaching days were lost due to stress induced mental health illness amongst the teaching profession.  Let that number sink in for a minute or two.  Over 47,000 days of teaching were lost in 2014 due to teachers being worked to the point of mental illness.  That is a horrendous statistic that everyone concerned with education standards and public services in Wales should be deeply worried about.

If you believe this to be a blip then I am ashamed to say that you would be mistaken.  Freedom of Information research conducted by NUT Cymru has shown that year on year the number of absences due to workload induced stress related mental illness is consistently around the 50,000 day mark.  On average over the past three years 49,524 teaching days have been lost.  At a time of rising class sizes and staff redundancies this is the equivalent of seeing an additional 253 full time teachers being employed in Wales.

Those teachers who have been signed off with stress related mental illnesses do not wish to be away from work.  For many it is incredibly difficult to return to the role due to a loss of confidence; fear of a reprisal of the pressures that caused them to become ill in the first instance; a concern for the educational wellbeing of their pupils and the worry of slipping behind the curve of new initiatives and practices.  Indeed, for a significant minority of individuals being forced to take stress related sick leave is the first stage to the end of their careers as they never return to teaching.  This is a problem not only in terms of losing a valuable human asset in regards to the experience and quality of those practitioners, but also in the sense that there is a time and finance cost of training new entrants to the profession to cover this turnover.

Of course there are further reasons to push this issue high on the agenda in Wales.  Tackling this problem will not only help to protect the wellbeing of our school staff, it also offers huge opportunities elsewhere on standards and school finance.

Reducing the instances of stress related leave will enhance the continuity of teaching in our classrooms and ultimately improve standards.  Teachers who spent time fostering relationships with their pupils over time will have a better chance of seeing the fruits of that hard work than if a pupil’s education is disrupted by having to re-establish trust in a new supply teacher, or several if the issue persists over a prolonged period of time or intermittently.

Basing the cost of supply on an average of £170 per day we can see that, as a conservative estimate, stress related illnesses are hitting school budgets by around £8.4m each year.  While it will be impossible to completely eradicate that expenditure, putting measures in place to avoid workload pressures manifesting themselves in stress related sickness in the first place, and offering better support for those who do suffer when it does happen, could reduce that bill significantly.  This would put more money back into the system, alleviating some of the unprecedented financial challenges schools across Wales are currently facing.

So what needs to happen?  In the first instance we need to fully appreciate exactly what the situation is on the ground.  We know the impact of workload pressures and have countless examples of anecdotal evidence.  What we need now is the cold hard facts.

NUT Cymru have written to the Education Minister to ask that the Welsh Government conduct a workload survey to get a clearer picture of the reality of teaching for those working in the sector in Wales.  It has to be said that Huw Lewis AM has often spoken up for the profession since he was appointed to the role.  He is clearly a keen supporter of teaching as a profession and his drive to rekindle some of the lost respect for teaching has been very welcome for a profession that has often felt under siege in recent years.  I don’t think anyone doubts the Minister’s commitment to reducing the bureaucratic burden on teachers; to allowing them to get on with the role of teaching or in promoting the profession within the education sector and beyond.  The Minister has indicated that he is open to the idea of a workload survey being discussed with officials.  Hopefully this does lead to some tangible progress.  With that information we can set about creating a fairer and more manageable system that works with teachers and for pupils.  Ultimately we cannot continue with a system that results in a new teacher being pushed to exhaustion and forced to take time off through mental ill health on average every 5 hours.

This origionally appeared in the Western Mail on Saturday June 6th.  You can see it here.


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