The Bristol Cable

Teachers’ union survey exposes stress crisis in Bristol’s schools, exacerbated by cuts and unsustainable workloads. Could a ‘fair workload charter’ help?

Photo: Wavebreakmedia

There aren’t many professions which require workers to do ten to twenty hours of unpaid overtime per week on a regular basis – but many teachers in Bristol report being required to do just that. Combined with staff reductions and teachers’ reports of feeling a lack of control over their working environment, the sector is facing a stress crisis.

Now unions are urging the council to introduce a voluntary charter for school management teams to sign up to that will cap teachers’ workloads to a more sustainable level.

Bristol NEU’s (National Education Union) recent survey into the wellbeing of teaching staff yielded shocking results. Eighty per cent reported experiencing symptoms of stress, such as headaches, depression, disturbed sleep or raised blood pressure.

Close to 80% of respondents reported being hit, kicked, bitten, physically or sexually assaulted, spat at or sworn at by pupils, parents or carers in the last 12 months.

Speaking to Bristol NEU representative Will Brown, it becomes obvious that the issue of stress is widespread. “The numbers of teachers I’m dealing with at any one time, who are signed off with stress, is in double figures, and it’s increasing all the time,” says Brown, who describes the situation as a “saddening picture”.

However, the cause of stress, according to all teaching staff the Cable spoke to, was largely the unsustainable workloads teachers face. The lack of trust between teachers and their management was also a serious issue: “There is an inherent lack of trust in the way teachers are treated,” says Brown.

“There is an inherent lack of trust in the way teachers are treated”

“You would struggle to find any teacher who works less than 50 hours per week, and that’s unpaid overtime,” Brown continues. Teachers’ contracts include a clause that requires them to work whatever hours are needed to complete their work – but in the current age of excessive bureaucracy and marking criteria, this means many teachers are working far beyond their contracted hours.

A teacher who has worked in Bristol for the last nine years told the Cable that in teaching “there are no cut-off times”. She said the increasing amount of recording and paperwork required of teachers has left classroom teachers “powerless” to address the root causes of the overwork: “As teachers you don’t have control over it, you’re at the mercy of what the senior leadership wants.”

The academy system, which has removed local authority management of schools in favour of academy trusts, has meant that schools’ management can vary greatly from trust to trust. Teachers say management in schools have asked for increasing amounts of paperwork to be done over recent years, partly due to the government’s focus on assessment in a landscape of cuts, and due to perceived requirements from the regulatory body, Ofsted.

Lisa Middle, who is the health and safety advisor for Bristol NEU and compiled the survey results, was unsurprised by the reported stress levels.

Linking the problem to central government cuts, she said: “It can be argued that violence is an expression of unregulated stress… Stress can be understood as resulting from unmet needs. If a student is deprived – has needs which are unmet – or the school is deprived, a classroom is more likely to be a stressful environment.”

The severity of the problem is evidenced by the number of teachers – even newly qualified teachers – leaving the profession, says Middle. According to recent reporting by the Guardian, the number of teachers leaving the profession for non-retirement reasons increased from 22,260, or 6%, in 2011 to 34,910, or 8.1%, in 2016.

“You would struggle to find any teacher who works less than 50 hours per week, and that’s unpaid overtime”

So what can be done to address the issue of stress? “Everyone talks about individuals needing to have resilience,” says Middle. “Of course, individual resilience is essential, but as a union we’re interested in organisational resilience.” This means looking at stressors – such as unnecessary paperwork requirements – which can be controlled if management has the will.

Although there has been a focus on staff wellbeing in different trusts recently, Middle says the successful ones are those who address the root causes of stress: “A lot of schools have wellbeing programmes, and some of them are effective. The ones that are most effective are the ones where management takes positive action, to actually address workload. A basket of fruit in the staffroom, while welcome, does not constitute a positive wellbeing programme.”

Fair workload charters – a step forward?

Nationally, other local authorities have tried to address workload issues by introducing ‘Fair Workload Charters’ – voluntary agreements that schools and trusts can sign up to and include clauses to identify and reduce workloads where possible.

Nottingham City Council were the first authority to bring in a charter, after struggling with teacher recruitment. However, the Nottingham City charter includes a convtroversial stipulation that teachers shouldn’t work more than two hours per day in their own time.

Some say that there shouldn’t be any requirement to work over and above contracted hours unpaid. At the last national NUT conference, attendees debated whether or not to push for teachers’ contracts to be changed to remove the requirement to work outside of contracted hours.

In Bristol, teachers’ unions have been trying to meet with Bristol City Council to discuss introducing a fair workload charter. Will Brown says that he would like the council to “engage more fully”, after efforts to discuss the issue were delayed.

Councillor Anna Keen, cabinet member for Education and Skills, said: “We take very seriously the results of the survey and plan to review them at length with our Learning City partners to see how we as a city can better support our hard working teachers.

“Supporting workforce wellbeing is one of our key priorities and we will continue to remind schools and governing bodies of their responsibility to support wellbeing of staff and monitor their workload,” she said.

She added that new heads in the city would undergo coaching support, which would include a focus on staff wellbeing.

On the possibility of introducing a Fair Workload Charter, a spokesperson for the council said: “We are looking at the benefits of such a charter and are working with teachers and other partners to see what methods would work locally to address any workload pressures felt by our school staff.”

According to the teacher the Cable spoke to, attempting to address stress levels were frustrating because it wasn’t clear, in the current landscape of cuts and atomised school management, who to target. “Who is the right person to ask to get an answer?” she asked.

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  • Anonymous says:

    When the push for student results is valued above everything else, schools devolve into factories. Teachers and students become unhappy, behaviour and morale both deteriorate and the new generation of managers are mostly emotionless robots who do not support their staff appropriately.

    “Data” and “accountability” have both become dirty words in the teaching profession.

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