Unions and ministers 'abandon' staff

1st May 2009 at 01:00
Departing boss of teachers' helpline believes the workforce is weakened by poor mental health

Overworked, burnt-out teachers are being forced to leave their jobs with inadequate payouts and no hope of returning, effectively abandoned by unions, employers and a system ill-equipped to help them.

The accusation comes from Patrick Nash, who steps down today after 11 years at the helm of the country's biggest charity dedicated to helping teachers.

The outgoing chief executive of the Teacher Support Network is concerned about the growing number of teachers suffering the work-induced mental health problems that now constitute around a quarter of the charity's caseload.

"Stopping work is not a treatment," he said. "Payouts are not big, so they are going to be left with money and security worries and mental health problems that are not being treated. There are too many people that this happens to.

"They are being abandoned by the unions, by the system, by the employers and by society."

In a wide-ranging farewell interview with The TES, Mr Nash also criticised government ministers, GPs, Ofsted and the school workforce agreement. All of which seems slightly out of character for the good natured 51-year-old, who used to work for the Dalai Lama.

But the unburdening is understandable from a man who has spent more than a decade conducting tactful, delicate negotiations with union leaders and schools ministers whose support was essential to making his service a success.

When he arrived in January 1998, it was still known as the Teachers' Benevolent Fund, a part of the NUT until 1964. Then, Mr Nash says, the union still considered the fund its own.

His first task was to change the charity from running what he describes as "half-empty", "horrible" teacher retirement homes to providing a counselling service, in the face of "furious" opposition from the NUT leadership.

He succeeded. The service began in 1999, dealt with 12,000 cases in its first year, and by 2008 was helping around 100,000 teachers a year. But Mr Nash believes a "revolution" in the way schools and unions treat teachers is needed to change things fundamentally.

"They have got into the habit of saying that if somebody is suffering from stress, or mild to moderate mental health problems, let's get them out of the workplace," he said.

"Employers, GPs and unions collude in this, in doing the wrong thing - it is not conscious, it is just the culture we are in.

"And then you get stories of people having terrible, terrible mental health problems that they don't really need to have."

He argues that making the system less "black and white" would allow more staff to recover. "It doesn't really support a halfway house," he said. "You either have to carry on working in the same circumstances, in which case you are likely to get more ill. Or you leave the job.

"When people come back, they return to exactly the same set of circumstances they were in when they left, so nine times out of 10 that individual is going to get sick again.

"Then the employer goes: `Oh, well it would be easier if we get them out.' The union gets involved to support the individual and they are thinking: `Well, probably it will be better', because they can see nothing much is going to change."

Mr Nash says once someone has been off work sick for three months, the chance of them ever working again falls dramatically.

He had been excited about the idea of the school workforce agreement tackling teacher workload, but was "disappointed" by the reality, which he describes as a "sledgehammer", "mechanistic" approach.

"It hasn't dealt with the issue and it won't, because simplistic solutions don't work," he said.

Ministers had generally been difficult to deal with, Mr Nash said. He thought that was because they felt that supporting a service for stressed teachers reflected badly on the Government.

He found an attempt to broaden his network to include other teaching union funds was scuppered by rivalry between unions. They should spend money on updating "antiquated" member services, instead of competing, he says.

"Even if the unions don't come together as unions, they absolutely should come together over (teacher mental health)," he said. "They all agree there is a problem. They all agree that it needs a solution, and they have got their own little arrangements, which they think are part of what differentiates them.

"But it is absolute rubbish. All the research says people who join a union do so because it's an insurance policy. It is a shambles really."

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