Staff and student wellbeing

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in November 2020  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

More than half of teachers say that their mental health has declined as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown and wider pandemic.

A report from teacher wellbeing charity Education Support (2020) included a survey of more than 3,000 teachers from all types of school and found that 52 per cent have seen a decline in mental health or wellbeing.

And the issue is not only affecting staff, of course. A wealth of research in the past six months has highlighted the threats to students’ wellbeing since the first national lockdown in March.

For example, research by the Prince’s Trust has found that more than a quarter of young people felt unable to cope with life amid the pandemic and almost a third had had panic attacks. More than a third said they were struggling to think clearly.

Meanwhile, Place2Be, a charity that offers counselling for young people, has said that reports of safeguarding issues, and in particular self-harm, are up 77 per cent among secondary pupils, while suicidal ideation increased by 81 per cent.

The NSPCC’s helpline reported receiving contacts from more than 22,000 adults between April and June – with May seeing around 8,300 calls alone. Concerns being reported included about parental behaviour, physical and emotional abuse, neglect and sexual abuse. Another key concern is domestic violence. The NSPCC received 26 calls a day about domestic violence during the first national lockdown earlier this year.

Staff wellbeing

So what can we do for our staff, who have been working flat-out since the spring and cannot yet see any end to the pandemic, despite the positive news about vaccine development? First, school leaders can develop ethical leadership practices.

I wrote about ethical leadership for SecEd in November (Bromley, 2020). I said that ethical leadership in education is driven by a respect for values and an unfaltering belief in the dignity and rights of others and that ethical leaders build school cultures governed by fair, clearly articulated expectations, rather than cultures driven by personalities or politics. Ethical leadership, I said, is anchored in five principles: Honesty, justice, respect, community, and integrity.

In practice, in addition to what I suggested in that article, ethical leaders might promote staff wellbeing by taking some of the following actions. First, in order to help reduce teachers’ workload, ethical leaders can:

  • Ensure teachers are given more than the statutory 10 per cent of PPA time, as well as offer all staff with additional responsibilities protected leadership time.
  • Ensure meetings are kept short and productive, are only called when essential and stick to an agreed agenda.
  • Offer all staff career development opportunities, as well as access to quality CPD – even if it has to be delivered remotely.
  • Ensure school policies and procedures are workable and fair, and not overly bureaucratic – especially when it comes to assessment.

Second, in order to protect staff health and wellbeing, ethical leaders can:

  • Ensure there is a safe space for staff to get together and talk without fear or favour.
  • Provide free refreshments for staff working on site.
  • Provide healthcare for staff, including flu vaccines.
  • Plan regular staff social events or encourage remote gatherings.
  • Be flexible when it comes to affording staff access to family events such as children’s Christmas concerts.
  • Operate clear communications protocols including for the use of email to help achieve a work/life balance, especially during remote learning.

Third, ethical leaders can help provide purpose and focus for staff by:

  • Having clear job descriptions and person specifications which are followed.
  • Having clear policies and expectations.
  • Consulting as much as possible and on as many issues as possible, ensuring every voice is heard and considered.
  • Making sure hard work is recognised and success celebrated.

Pupil wellbeing

To promote pupil wellbeing during the pandemic, Trauma Informed Schools UK suggests we do the following (which I have taken the liberty to paraphrase):

  • Be calm – we should be steady and matter of fact in order to reassure pupils.
  • Be positive – we should remind pupils of all the ways they have learnt to keep themselves safe, such as washing their hands and staying in their own space.
  • Be curious – we should listen and try not to dismiss pupils’ fears but validate how they are feeling.
  • Be thankful – we should help pupils to think of things they are looking forward to, such as being with friends and learning exciting new things.

Difficult conversations

The charity Winston’s Wish, meanwhile, has produced a number of useful resources to help support schools with difficult conservations with pupils about the coronavirus in general and bereavement in particular.

First, they advise that teachers acknowledge pupils’ worries, concerns and anxieties. A child may understandably be concerned or worried by what they have seen, read or heard in the news regarding the coronavirus, and this anxiety can be heightened for those who have seen someone close to them die. As such, it is important to acknowledge their worries.

Winston’s Wish says that it is good to talk to children honestly but calmly about what is happening, and not ignore or shield them from what is going on in the world. We should remember that we do not need to have all of the facts and answers.

A gentle conversation can reassure a pupil that they can talk to you so that they don’t feel like they are on their own. Children and young people who have been bereaved or are facing the death of someone important, especially during coronavirus, will appreciate people acknowledging their particular concerns.

Second, Winston’s Wish suggests we reassure pupils. It is natural, they say, that those who have experienced the death of someone close may worry that something will happen to someone else in their family. They will spot false reassurance, but it is reasonable to put what is happening into context in a reassuring way.

Third, Winston’s Wish suggests we talk to pupils about issues such as the coronavirus. We shouldn’t be afraid to have conversations with pupils about Covid-19 – indeed, not talking about something can sometimes make children worry more.

Build back better

A report by the World Health Organisation entitled Building Back Better: Sustainable mental health care after emergencies (2013), says that during emergencies, mental health requires special consideration. This is, they say, due to three common issues:

  • Increased rates of mental health problems.
  • Weakened mental health infrastructure.
  • Difficulties coordinating the agencies providing mental health and psycho-social support.

It is certainly true that many of our pupils will have experienced trauma during recent months including, as I say above, as a result of bereavement, and that – as the above data attests – mental health issues are likely to be more prevalent. It is also true that many pupils with existing mental health problems will have had less support during the pandemic and that accessing specialist support will have been – and will continue to be – more difficult.

So, what can we do to support our pupils’ mental health and wellbeing? A British Psychological Society report called Back to school: Using psychological perspectives to support re-engagement and recovery (BPS, 2020), says that, in order to support pupils’ social, emotional and mental health needs, we should first acknowledge that they are going to experience a range of emotions. This may include a mixture of excitement, happiness and relief but it may also include anxiety, fear and anger.

In most cases a whole community response aimed at promoting positive reintegration and building resilience will, the BPS says, help to resolve their difficulties. For others, the use of school-based social emotional and mental health resources and expertise will help.

The BPS report also advocates building vulnerable pupils’ resilience. The report says that resilience is not something that someone either does or does not have, it comes from how all the important parts of a person’s life interact – their friends, family, school and local community.

As such, we need to make sure that children have a strong sense of belonging, strong relationships, a sense of agency, high expectations, and that they can meaningfully contribute to their community.

The BPS says that, during this crisis, there is a risk that the narrative around changing policies – nationally and for schools and education – becomes dominated by the language of risk and trauma. Coping is important to protect ourselves from stress and it is important to connect with the ways in which we are coping with this challenge. Psychological perspectives and resiliency approaches also give us space to talk about strengths and hope. A framework to promote resilience includes creating positive goals, planning how to track positive change, and working to reduce risk while enhancing strengths.

Prioritising mental health: Case studies

The GM Mentally Healthy Schools and Colleges programme is part of a major £134m action plan first announced in 2017 and aimed at helping to transform mental health in Greater Manchester. The programme seeks to take a proactive approach, focusing on earlier intervention and prevention of poor mental health.

The third phase of the project, which kicked off in September 2019, has involved more than 125 schools, colleges and PRUs in the region and is coming to an end shortly.

The aim is to explore how evidence-based approaches can improve young people’s mental health through developing their physical and emotional literacy and by providing the right training, support and resources for school staff, including training to become mental health champions (staff and students), mental health first aid training for staff, and one-to-one support for vulnerable children. This work has undoubtedly helped the schools involved to cope with the mental health implications of Covid-19.

Lisa Fathers, director of teaching schools and partnerships at the Alliance for Learning, which is part of the consortium delivering the project, explained: “Across our network we are seeing the benefits of working together and providing mutual support which are critically important now. There have been some amazing examples of our school communities coming together to help key workers, with leaders showing courage and selflessness to care for our children, young people and their families. Yet we are also seeing individuals facing challenging circumstances in looking after their own wellbeing and mental health.”

A vice-principal at a secondary school involved in the project highlighted how the programme had resulted in them employing a fully trained counsellor: “They now have pastoral briefings every week and CPD at the school is tailored to colleague wellbeing. The programme has brought colleagues closer together from a professional and social perspective helping the team to take a more solutions-based approach to challenges.”

Elsewhere, The Focus Trust, a MAT of 15 schools across Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, have also had “a focus on mental and physical health as well as ensuring we are connected”, according to deputy CEO Donna Tandy.

In terms of supporting pupils’ wellbeing, the trust has focused on outdoor learning and Forest Schools in a number of their schools. They have also paid for their schools to become Voice21 Oracy schools in order to equip children with the skills to articulate their feelings and make sense of the world. Many of the schools have adopted a therapeutic classroom approach, too, to help create learning environments that are as supportive as possible.

In terms of supporting staff wellbeing, the Trust took part in the #onetrustonechallenge whereby staff aimed to run, walk and cycle twice round the world while raising money for Education Support and the NSPCC. The MAT also runs ‘Therapeutic Tuesday” events where staff can take part in paid-for Zoom yoga and wellbeing sessions, which focus on things like nutrition and general wellbeing.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley

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