Will the DfE's new wellbeing charter have any impact?

The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter promises a new focus on mental health – but its effectiveness remains to be seen

Dan Worth

Teacher mental health: Will the DfE's new wellbeing charter having any impact in schools?

Wellbeing is a big topic in education right now – understandably so, given the past year and the toll this has taken on staff in all roles in schools and colleges.

This is perhaps why the Department for Education chose last week's Mental Health Awareness Week to unveil a new Education Staff Wellbeing Charter that sets out commitments for ensuring the "wellbeing and mental health of everyone working in education".

For schools and colleges, the idea is you can sign up to the charter and its 11 commitments to support staff wellbeing and mental health. The DfE has even provided some snazzy posters to download and pin up as well.

What’s perhaps more intriguing, though, is the fact that DfE itself and Ofsted have also created guidelines by which they will operate and, given everything that has happened since March 2020, this will raise some eyesbrows in school and colleges.

For the DfE these commitments include:

  • Considering how new policy changes may impact on teacher wellbeing.
  • Measuring the "anxiety, happiness, worthwhileness, life satisfaction and job satisfaction across the profession, using established metrics and methods".
  • Ensuring that DfE guidance is published during working hours (with some caveats).
  • Championing flexible working and diversity.
  • Embedding wellbeing in teacher training and professional development.

Meanwhile, Ofsted has said that it will work to ensure that inspectors take staff wellbeing into account in judgements, and review whether its framework is having inadvertent impacts on staff wellbeing and aim to reduce the administrative workload of inspections on schools.

Protecting teacher mental health and wellbeing

Taken at face value, these commitments certainly sound like the sorts of things that education professionals want to see – an understanding of how policy changes impact on working lives, the realisation that Sundays are not good days to reveal new guidance and an appreciation that a stressed workforce is not ideal when engaged in the art of teaching, and so forth.  

However, a nicely designed PDF and some well-meaning pledges are one thing – acting on these as part of a top-down, education-wide culture that promotes wellbeing is another, as James Bowen, head of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union, outlines.

“School staff will understandably be sceptical about this, and so it will be down to the DfE to ensure that their actions live up to the words on the page,” he says.

Nevertheless, he adds that it is “encouraging” that the government is addressing this issue of teacher wellbeing – not least because it has to shoulder much of the blame for how stressful the past 16 months or so have been.

“Even before the pandemic, there were significant existing challenges like heavy workload, the high-stakes nature of the job and a decade of salaries falling in real terms. But this has been exacerbated hugely by the lack of trust and support for leaders shown by the government over the past year,” Bowen says.

“There is a pressing need to address the wellbeing of school leaders and all education staff. Ultimately, this will require a fundamental shift in the way government interacts with schools, and a willingness to wrestle with a number of deeply entrenched issues.”

Frontline insights

This point about interaction with schools seems to have been a key consideration in the formation of the charter, with several schools involved – giving those at the chalkface the chance to look the DfE in eye and explain the realities of the job, and how its actions can make it a lot harder

One teacher who got to do just that was Steve Rippin, assistant headteacher and Sendco at Tapton School in South Yorkshire. Rippin explains that the meetings on the issue and planning towards the charter started before the pandemic with several face-to-face discussions.

“There were quite a few prominent people there and they were listening and open to taking ideas on board,” he tells Tes.

So does the charter that’s been produced reflect the meetings that took place? Rippin says it does.

“I think the DfE have listened and taken things on, and it’s a fair representation of what was discussed – there are some compromises, but I think it’s understandable and a step in the right direction,” he adds.

Seeing the charter as a "step in the right direction" is a point echoed by primary head Ruth Luzmore. “I welcome any top-level thinking about what the DfE and associated organisations can do to promote a workforce with a healthy attitude to wellbeing,” she says, adding: “It is pleasantly surprising they have put their name to a document which almost confesses to being a substantial cause in that stress, too.”

Systematic changes needed

However, she notes that without fundamental changes to the system in which teachers, schools and colleges operate – to tackle problems such as a lack of funding and accountability measured in highly competitive league tables – a focus on wellbeing through a well-meaning charter may not have a huge impact.

“Let’s not kid ourselves that holding schools and trusts to account to provide a workplace which has wellbeing at its heart is possible without a system that has capacity to do so. We can be responsive to wellbeing issues, but firstly we need to build a system which minimises the unnecessary stress,” says Luzmore.

Primary school headteacher Michael Tidd agrees that the wider system is the bigger issue here – and questions whether a charter will do anything to change that.

“Teachers feel under mental strain by trying to keep on top of the many competing demands of the job while also ensuring that inspections and tests go well,” he says.

“The shift that is needed at the national level for DfE/Ofsted is not one of creating a new policy about policies, or even the workload toolkit; the large proportion of difficulties stem from the high-stakes nature of things like test results and Ofsted inspection.

“Without a fundamental change to how those things impact on school leaders (and hence, in turn, their staff), most other things are just tinkering around the edges.”

Rippin says he understands this view, and agrees that for the charter to have a real impact, it needs to act as a catalyst to spark real change: “This needs to trickle down to all areas of education, not just schools and colleges but all organisations that work in education.”

Unified voices

Achieving this sort of cross-sector focus on wellbeing is not going to happen overnight – but it should be noted that the government has engaged with key bodies in education, such as the NAHT, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the Association of Colleges, the NASUWT and the NEU teaching unions, the charity Education Support and even mental health charity Mind, in creating the charter.

For Sara Ford, deputy director of policy at the ASCL, the collaborative nature of the charter is its biggest selling point: “The creation of the staff wellbeing charter is a pivotal moment for everyone involved in education and sets some important standards for the future,” she says.

“All the ‘co-creators’ of this overarching framework document, ourselves included, have accepted a collective responsibility for the future wellbeing of education staff.”

Sinéad Mc Brearty, CEO of Education Support, agrees: “It’s great news that teacher wellbeing is finally at the top of the agenda. There is a huge amount of work to do to improve workforce wellbeing across the education sector but the charter is a welcome first step on the journey.”

Starting this journey now in a pandemic, with the added stresses of everything from teacher-assessed grades to cuts in pupil premium funding, may cause some consternation. “It’s not the ideal time to unveil it," admits Rippin – but given that the work on this started pre-pandemic, it may have a been a case of better late than never (and perhaps this accounts for the little fanfare that it received).

Measuring impact 

So the charter is live in black and white, with some clear commitments and with the backing of major educational organisations. That’s a good step – but how will progress on these points actually be measured to see if the lofty claims translate to real action?

Well, in the charter the DfE says it will review its own progress against its commitments in 2023 (marking its own homework?) – as well as assessing education staff wellbeing levels – covered in Point 3 in the charter as follows:

“For the secondary and primary sectors, we will measure on an ongoing basis the levels of anxiety, happiness, worthwhileness, life satisfaction and job satisfaction across the profession, using established metrics and methods.”

Those methods will include using existing Office for National Statistics wellbeing measures as well as potentially using data from a new teacher workforce research project, the Longitudinal Study of Teachers, which was commissioned earlier this year from IFF Research.

For FE colleges, the DfE says it “will engage with FE sector bodies to understand insights into staff mental health and wellbeing within the sector”, suggesting a different approach again.

For Luzmore, this plan to track staff wellbeing and build up a picture of how staff are feeling sounds good on paper – but she notes that, given how much of an impact the pandemic will have had on education staff, such information may be meaningless without a pre-pandemic context.

“Wellbeing is a relative thing – I look fondly back on times in the past when I thought things were stressful and laugh at my own ignorance of what stresses were to come – so I’ll be interested to know how they take a measured interpretation of the results,” she adds.  

Roll on 2023 when we can find out if they do just that. Beyond this, there is little clear sense of how anything will be measured.

The DfE does ask school and colleges that sign up for the charter to share their experiences, so perhaps they will use insights gleaned there to prove the charter has been a roaring success.

Perhaps we should not be too cynical, though. Yes, a little specticism is healthy and perhaps to be expected around any top-down wellbeing initiatives amid the morass of the past year – but, as Rippin says, some quiet optimism that wellbeing is on the agenda would also not got amiss.

“A small step now is better than planning for a big step that never comes," he adds.

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Dan Worth

Find me on Twitter @danworth

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