Caring for the carers

2nd November 2007 at 00:00
Emotional health and well-being are blossoming in the leafy suburbs. Fiona Leney reports.A sparsely decorated room, two wall hangings the only splashes of colour on the walls. The lights have been dimmed and blinds pulled across the windows. Chris Gothard sits at the front. Behind her is a screen showing a tranquil coastal scene; in front of her is a solitary candle.

This is a guided visualisation session, part of a workshop on building stress resilience. Today's participants are teachers.

The course is just one plank in an approach to staff well-being that has been enthusiastically adopted by Wokingham Borough Council. The Berkshire authority has established programmes for staff in its education and care services in line with the philosophy, according to its literature, of: "If we don't look after the people who look after the children, who will look after the children?"

Chris, the authority's emotional health and well-being adviser, calls her work a key part of "Every Adult Matters". "Our courses have always been for everyone, from the head to the canteen staff, because well-being is linked to the way you manage communication and change within a community," she says.

Any of the borough's 63 maintained schools - 51 primary, nine secondary, two special and one nursery - can ask for a well-being survey to be conducted among their staff to highlight any particular concerns, although teachers do have to pay to go on a workshop - pound;90 for one of the workshops at the authority's centres. Work carried out in schools is provided free of charge.

"We fund this because we believe in equipping and supporting our workforce to do the best job they can for our children," Chris says. But she is emphatic that her job is not to resolve schools' problems for them.

"The premise is that we help schools to help themselves. So staff at the workshops fill in an action plan as they go along, there are practical tips given in handouts, and participants take what they've learnt back to implement it at school," she says.

These action plans set out ways of tackling the issues raised in the workshops and, once back in schools, teachers are encouraged to cite a personal well-being target during their appraisals. Sessions also look at issues such as work-life balance. Waingels College, a 1,500-pupil comprehensive in Woodley, near Reading, was one of the first secondaries to sign up for whole-school workshops three years ago.

Ruth Evans, its head, says she was keen to put well-being on the agenda and was attracted by the opportunity that the survey would provide to get staff feedback.

"We have great facilities here, but, as you might expect of a large secondary school, the issues that arose were communication and management of change," she says.

A range of staff took part in the workshops and in school sessions. "Now we are all aware of the importance of well-being, and what can affect it, day by day," she says.

The solutions for Waingels are an imaginative mix of hi-tech and common sense.

"We've gone over almost entirely to email to improve communication and we've also redecorated the staffroom and we have a tea party every Monday after school, with staff taking turns to provide the tea," she says.

An easily overlooked contingent in school is part-time and support staff. Wokingham's inclusive agenda aims to address this, recognising that attempts to promote well-being will fail unless all staff feel valued.

Waingels' survey, for example, revealed that part-time staff found it stressful trying to park at school in the middle of the day, when full-timers had taken all the places. As a result, the school expanded the car park.

For Embrook Infants and Nursery School in Wokingham, the survey threw up a lack of confidence and desire for further training among support staff.

Elaine Shore, Embrook's head, says that identifying and taking action on these issues has brought benefits to the school.

"I now run support staff meetings, rather than leaving them to it, because it gives the meetings status. They know they have my support, and the increase in confidence is noticed by visitors," she says.

While these measures can help defuse issues that cause tension, Chris recognises that help is needed for those who are already stressed. She works with heads to identify teachers and support staff who may be feeling under particular pressure, and who may benefit from learning deep breathing and meditation techniques, as well as the stress resilience sessions. Counselling is also available to those who need it.

The authority has been working in partnership with the private Wellington College in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Anthony Seldon, Wellington's head and himself a yoga practitioner, introduced well-being classes for pupils last year and is now looking at extending them to teachers.

This approach is not without its critics. Writing in The TES earlier this term, columnist Peter Wilby argued that well-being lessons risk "becoming vehicles for creating what authority thinks is an ideal citizen", concluding that economic improvement is a surer route to happiness.

And Oliver James, writing in this magazine last month, argued that there was little evidence that intervention programmes in schools aimed at problem-solving and promoting coping skills had anything more than a cosmetic effect.

But in Wokingham they are undeterred, and the programme of well-being courses and workshops continues. Only time will tell if teachers are happier as a result.

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