On the 20th March this year, most schools and colleges in the United Kingdom closed as the country went into lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This resulted in multiple transitions for professionals working in education, children, young people and their families. Teachers had to adapt to delivering lessons online.
This resulted in increased workloads for teachers. In addition, staff were forced to adapt to home working and students were isolated from their friends and routines; a key part of their daily lives dissolved overnight.
The situation could not be avoided. In the interests of national safety, the government made the decision to follow the lead of other countries by closing schools for all pupils, except for those who were deemed to be vulnerable and children of key workers.
Shortly after this, national examinations, which teachers and children had worked so hard towards, were cancelled. This was a major educational policy decision. Teachers and school leaders did not have the opportunity to shape these policy decisions, or the subsequent decisions which were made by central government in relation to education throughout the lockdown.
The impact on the mental health of teachers cannot be under-estimated
The impact of school closures and exclusion from national policy decisions on the wellbeing and mental health of teachers, non-teaching staff and school leaders cannot be under-estimated.
A recent report by the national charity Education Support (2020)* demonstrates that:
• 50% of all education professionals felt their mental health and wellbeing had declined either considerably or a little.
• 50% cited the lack of timely government guidance was one of the most challenging aspects.
• Only 15% felt greatly or somewhat appreciated by the UK government.
• Only 25% felt greatly or somewhat appreciated by the general public
Education professionals were forced to quickly adapt to new ways of working at the same time as balancing personal commitments such as caring for their own children. Staff missed their daily interactions with colleagues and students and some had to come to terms with the deaths of colleagues, students and family members. Many staff continued working in schools on a rota basis to care for vulnerable children and children of key workers, despite knowing the possible risks to their own health.
School leaders faced specific challenges, including digesting and responding to frequent policy directives which were often untimely and confusing. As schools prepared to re-open fully, leaders were expected to synthesise vast amounts of policy information from central government, as well as bearing the anxiety that they experienced for being ultimately responsible for the health and wellbeing of staff and children.
It seems that school staff have been forgotten
School environments had to be quickly adapted so that children and staff could return to school safely and numerous posts on Edu Twitter demonstrated the anger of teachers and leaders held toward the government. The examinations fiasco in August led to a further breakdown of relationships between education professionals and the government.
It seems that school staff have been forgotten.
Unlike office workers, who can maintain safe distances from colleagues, social distancing in schools is extremely difficult to achieve, and it is impossible to teach wearing full PPE.
The fact that ‘bubbles’ in school are now being closed down, and that some schools are being forced to close completely, indicates that the risks are still there.
Government must ensure that education professionals are given a voice
However, education staff are caring professionals. Most want to go to work and educate children. That is their vocation.
During the lockdown period the role of the school and the educator was reconceptualised from one of education to care. Schools and communities were strengthened through innovative initiatives which schools adopted to ensure that families were able to function more effectively during a difficult time.
Looking to the future, there are lessons to be learned from this experience. Central government must ensure that education professionals are given a voice by including them in strategic policy decisions.
There is now an opportunity for the government to regain the trust and respect of the profession but before that can happen, the government needs to start trusting and respecting education professionals.
School leaders need more adequate support to ensure that they can discharge their responsibilities effectively. They should not be required to solely bear the weight of responsibility, especially when, now more than ever, they are responsible for life or death.
Models of clinical supervision that are mandatory in other sectors should also be mandatory in education. School leaders must prioritise the wellbeing of all staff, not just through eradicating unnecessary workloads, but by creating positive school cultures which provide staff with agency and enable them to thrive.
In addition, we have learned this year, through the examination fiasco, that teachers are capable of making accurate teacher assessments in relation to student attainment. Attempts to undermine teacher assessment during the summer were a national disgrace and demonstrated complete disregard for teachers’ own professional judgements, informed by evidence.
We must consider the needs of trainee and recently-qualified teachers
A move away from terminal examinations towards more teacher assessment through coursework would help to reduce examination stress and help to re-build trust between central government and the education profession. A move to assessment by coursework would also more accurately reflect models of assessment that are employed in higher education.
Finally, and not least, we should consider the needs of trainee teachers and newly qualified teachers. Many were not able to complete their final placements; their training was disrupted and they missed out on opportunities to gain practical and theoretical knowledge of teaching.
None of this was their fault. Schools must consider carefully the needs of these teachers by providing them with additional, bespoke, high-quality support through mechanisms such as coaching. In addition, schools have a responsibility to continue supporting trainee teachers this year.
Training providers are anxious that they will not be able to source teaching placements for their trainees. Schools may well be reluctant to take a trainee due to the risks associated with having additional staff in school. However, there is a danger that the profession will face a national shortage of teachers in 2021 if these fears play out. Schools should therefore explore ways of deploying trainee teachers to help to reduce group sizes in schools.
*Education Support (2020) Covid-19 and the classroom: Working in education during the coronavirus pandemic: The impact on education professionals’ mental health and wellbeing, London: Education Support.