In November last year, Education Support – of which I am a trustee – published the latest findings from its Teacher Wellbeing Index.
While the headlines at the time focused on how work-related stress in the profession had increased for a third successive year, what went under the radar was that 43 per cent of NQTs had suffered from mental health issues in the past academic year, compared with 34 per cent of all education professionals.
This statistic encapsulates why mental health support must begin as soon as teachers walk through the school gate.
However, I would argue that this support must begin even earlier, with an acknowledgment of what happens in the initial teacher training (ITT) year being so important for later years.
Supporting teacher mental health
While ITT providers undoubtedly work hard to support the needs of all their trainees, including mental health needs, difficulties around non-disclosure, the variability in occupational health processes and lack of funding and capacity in schools mean that their efforts often do not receive the support needed from others in the sector.
Tackling this important issue must be a team effort, and yet so many members of that team are hampered by matters outside of their control.
To provide truly effective mental health support for trainee teachers, there are three interlinked challenges that we must tackle head-on:
1. Increasing the levels of teacher autonomy and trust
It is vital for the profession that potential new entrants see it as an attractive option when considering their careers.
High levels of stress, caused by excessive accountability in a fear-driven culture, permeate through the system.
Trainee teachers entering classrooms for the first time are often surprised and shocked by the levels of stress they encounter in the colleagues who are trying to support them.
As an introduction to the profession, this can be incredibly damaging – triggering mental health issues and anxiousness that lead to increased drop-out rates and higher levels of support needed, adding additional pressures into an already stretched system.
Until teachers are truly treated with the professional respect they deserve, this negative spiral will only continue to worsen.
2. Promoting healthy working practices and boundaries
ITT providers work extremely hard to minimise the workload of their trainee teachers but this has been frustrated by requirements to evidence progress and attainment.
We are taking steps forward under the new Ofsted inspection plans, which will no longer require providers to grade trainees, nor to gather evidence against the Teacher Standards.
What has yet to be addressed, however, is the workload expectations placed on teacher educators themselves, particularly mentors in schools, who are often overloaded with multiple roles.
Without proper recognition for the mentor role, supported with sufficient time, funding and resource, the well-meaning plans for the ITT Core Content Framework and Early Career Framework may inadvertently place such high demands on mentors that they will create unsustainable workloads, leading to greater levels of stress and deterioration of the mental health of those charged with nurturing new entrants to the profession.
3. Frontline early intervention emotional support
Teacher training is a very intense year, and we do have a worrying number of cases where trainees are going back into schools and presenting quite severe mental health issues.
Through my own investigation, I discovered that in some local authority areas, up to 78 per cent of child and adolescent mental health services referrals were turned away during the period in which the previous year’s trainees were pupils.
In practice, some of the adolescents who fell through the cracks at school are now coming back as adults into an environment where they were first exposed to feelings of anxiety, mental health issues and exam pressures.
Every trainee teacher, in fact every member of staff right through to executive heads and CEOs, should have access to professional and confidential emotional support.
This can help to resolve issues and support education professionals to manage their mental health and wellbeing.
Early intervention is vital and we urge the government to consider a nationally funded employee assistance programme for all frontline education staff.
Trainee teachers are being asked to look after the mental health of the children in their care.
It goes without saying that if you are not able to take care of your own mental health, it makes you less able to be responsive to the mental health of the children in your class.
We need to get on the front foot and address these issues that are impacting on trainee teachers, as well as upping the proactive support available to them.
Emma Hollis is executive director of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT)