One teacher’s radical proposal for reversing the slump in school staff wellbeing – but would it work?

Why all staff should fill in a survey on the working conditions in their school, and the results should be available for all to see

Zeph Auerbach

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I’d like you to picture an ex-colleague of mine, sitting in the staffroom in the summer term of last year, talking nervously but excitedly about a new school that just offered her a job. I considered her a titan of a teacher: eight years of experience at our school, intimidatingly efficient, unerringly positive – a teacher who, after a tough teaching week and endless meetings with the parents of our most vexing sixth-formers would still find the energy to run a marathon on Sunday.

She had the odd gripe with our school, but her main impetus in moving was to shake off old habits and seek out new opportunities. She’d visited the school – a large federation academy with an Ofsted rating of "outstanding" – and loved it.

Fast-forward to the autumn term. She had found the new school to be soulless and oppressive, with staff suffering crushingly low morale. The leadership were overly prescriptive in how lessons were to be taught, deadlines came from many tiers of a bloated hierarchy and workload simply ballooned. Ultimately, she found the environment so stressful that it had a massive impact on her wellbeing. She made the difficult but necessary decision to quit. (I’m pleased to report that she has since found a new role where she is very happy.)

The crucial question is: how could she have seen this coming? How could she have predicted that the school would not be a supportive and positive environment? The impression given by the interview day wasn't trustworthy, since hers was typical: a series of well-managed, prospectus-glossy snapshots of the nicer parts – and pupils – of the school. And the school’s outstanding Ofsted rating didn't tell her to what extent teachers were driven into the ground to make it so.

The latest report of my own school barely mentions teacher wellbeing; yours probably doesn’t either.

'Challenge zone'

So how do any of us know, when considering a move to another school, whether we will be stepping confidently into our "challenge zone", or simply plunging into a lower circle of hell? We know all too well from surveys of teacher wellbeing that the grand picture is dire, what with an average weekly workload of over 55 hours (according to the Department for Education), and 88 per cent of teachers experiencing stress in the past two years (Teacher Support Network, 2014). But in terms of what it is like to work at one school, compared to another, we are faced with a gaping chasm devoid of information. Bizarrely, I can browse Rate My Teachers to find plenty of spurious judgements on what the teachers are like, but nothing at all about what is it is like to teach at a particular school.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan was shouting very loudly about trying to help teachers out earlier this year. If you try to view the DfE’s Workload Challenge without any political cynicism, it looks like a step in the right direction; they received more than 21, 000 emails from teachers, after all. But the DfE asking all teachers to give general complaints about workload is like TripAdvisor asking all restaurant-goers to dump their reviews into one communal bin. What is actually needed is something much more systematic.

My proposal is a simple one. All teaching and non-teaching staff at state schools should be invited to complete a short, anonymous survey on their wellbeing and job satisfaction. We know the types of surveys as they are the type we all ask our pupils to complete to provide the dreaded "evidence" to fill our performance management wheelbarrows. Nothing taxing, just things like: “To what extent (1-5) do you agree with: ‘This school is a happy place to work’; ‘I feel supported by the leaders in my school.’” The results of these will be publicly available, as an easy to compare "Staff Wellbeing Score" for each school. What’s more, they’ll be supplemented by clear statistics on turnover rates at the school. Job hunters will find summaries of this information on adverts and take them into account when making their decisions.

Rewind to last summer term and picture an alternative vision of my colleague. She’s just rejected the job offer, saying “Well it got an ‘outstanding’ from Ofsted, but the teachers there don’t feel supported and dozens have left in the last year.” Instead, she’s chosen to go somewhere with a "Kitemark for job satisfaction". When you think about it, it really is amazing that we don’t have this type of information already. I can find 159 reviews and comments on a B&B in Bath where I want to stay for a weekend, but almost nothing on a school I might want to establish a career at for the next decade.

Promotion strategy

Consider what a school’s strategy regarding these surveys would be. First, they could use positive survey results to promote their schools, just as Iceland can tout itself as the "Best Big Company to Work For 2014". Second, and most interestingly, school leaders would have far more incentive to reflect on what they expect from staff and how they run their ship. Knowing how stressful being a teacher can be, and the problems faced sector-wide with recruitment and retention, shouldn’t school leaders be placing staff wellbeing as a higher priority?

Currently there is only a flimsy batch of incentives for them to do so. I know plenty of teachers who feel they could easily be pushed out and replaced with a cheaper, brighter-eyed NQT (who would only find themselves in a similar position in a couple of years’ time). It is all too frequent for veteran teachers and new recruits alike to find scrutiny where there should be support, and capability measures where should be compassion. I wince every time I hear leaders describing teachers as ‘dead wood’: as rot to remove, rather than people to nurture. If Nicky Morgan is serious when she says that far too many are working far too hard, for far too long – and it’s simply not sustainable, then this should be her call to action.

So who should establish and run the survey for the Staff Wellbeing Score? No union has full membership, and Ofsted has a reputation problem that it might be difficult to overcome. Perhaps it would best be run by an independent entity. Heck, I’d run it myself if I wasn’t a full-time teacher teetering on the tightrope of the work-life balancing act.

What I can see as being the most serious objection to this proposal is the threat of creating vicious downward spirals: a school that receives a poor Staff Wellbeing Score finds it harder to recruit good teachers, which leads to even lower morale, and so on. This deserves a lot of attention, but then again we cannot deny that such spirals already establish themselves owing to league tables, local reputation, or other factors that are only tenuously associated with teacher quality or wellbeing at the school.

When I’ve discussed this proposal with numerous colleagues from different schools, many have said it’s a simple no-brainer. They are surprised that such a survey doesn’t exist already. One NUT representative summed it up well: “As a teacher and union rep I’d obviously want it. I recently ran my own workplace survey which could be done more effectively on a national scale like this. And as a parent of a young child I would want my child to go to a school where the teachers are happy and supported.”

So who else is with me?

(I’m very proud to say that, since originally penning this article, my own school has placed staff wellbeing at the core of its developmental plan for this year. We are all very interested to see what happens next.)

Zeph Auerbach is a pseudonym 

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