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'Safeguarding teams aren't given the time they desperately need'

Vulnerable pupils will slip through the cracks because of unrealistic burdens placed on teachers, writes Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon, Oxbridge, Contextual offers, A level, Disadvantaged pupils, exam system

Does half-term seem like a long-distant memory to you? Mine involved desperately trying to cram in all the self-care activities I neglected during term time – I did yoga every morning, I baked, I wrote a large chunk of my new book, I caught up with friends. Ironically, I was kind of exhausted from all the "self-care".

Of course, it isn’t meant to work like that. For adults, the 24 hours of each day are supposed to be divided into eight for work, eight for leisure and eight for sleep. Yet, like almost every other person I know in education, asking me to achieve this work/life ratio is akin to asking me to sprout wings and fly into outer space.


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Last week, education secretary Damian Hinds announced the creation of a "new expert advisory group", which will examine how teachers can be better supported to cope with the pressures of their jobs. I cannot possibly fathom what this group might come up with that would be of any value, unless they’re prepared to reverse policies and dedicate further significant injections of funding, but I might yet be pleasantly surprised.

Last year, I suggested during a public debate that the "three terms of extreme stress and overwork followed by three periods of prolonged rest" lifestyle wasn’t serving the wellbeing of school staff particularly well. This was erroneously reported as me recommending teachers take holidays during term time, for which I was understandably ridiculed.

The point I was trying to make was that a combination of slashed budgets and education reforms seeking to "improve standards" have succeeded in assuring every single moment of the average teacher’s working day is accounted for, in advance. Yet the nature of the job means that any number of unpredictable variables will spring up during the day. Having accompanied countless teachers as they try to traverse a school building and are stopped every three steps by fellow staff and/or pupils placing demands on their time and rendering what should take 5 minutes a 30-minute endeavour, I completely understand why the NUT teaching union found that the average teacher does 12.1 hours of unpaid overtime per week. In fact, education professionals are second only to chief executives, who put in an average of 13.2 hours (and are generally more handsomely compensated).

'Opportunities missed'

Part of the reason for dramatically spiralling teacher workload is the cuts to public services that have previously supported pupil welfare, such as CAMHS and social services. This isn’t just having a devastating impact on teacher wellbeing. Last month, the media learned details of the life of Amber Peat and her death in 2015, a year when the impact of austerity measures was truly being felt.

Amber was just 13 years-old when she was found dead. It appears her death was as a result of suicide. An inquest heard that she had been subjected to emotional abuse by her stepfather. A number of media outlets, including the BBC, went with headlines along the lines of "several opportunities missed to protect tragic teenager".

Amber’s inquest found she had reported some aspects of the abuse to teachers. However, they were "not adequately picked up". The implication is clear. In fact, I was invited to appear on a TV news broadcast to discuss the story, then swiftly dropped after I said I did not and would not blame Amber's school for her death.

Emotional abuse doesn’t leave bruises and the people who perpetrate it are usually masters of manipulation and charm. Furthermore, it’s often difficult for victims to be explicit about their treatment, both because of fear of consequences and also because, spoken out loud and in isolation, the incidents of abuse might appear trivial. Having had a couple of close friends who have been subjected to this type of domestic abuse by their partners, I've concluded that you have to know a person exceedingly well to see the signs. Even then, there is always the fear of "overstepping the mark" and that "no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors".

If safeguarding teams are going to be expected to detect this kind of abuse and act on finely tuned instincts, they need time: time to establish a relationship with and gain the trust of pupils; time to ascertain exactly what is going on; time to collate other data that might give them a more comprehensive picture. They also need swift and efficient support from trained professionals working in other areas of the public sector. At present, most teachers have none of this.

Unless policymakers acknowledge the true impact of placing unrealistic burdens on teachers, more cases like Amber Peat’s will, I fear, be the inevitable result.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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