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Overworked, undervalued, out the door: Bristol teachers are being made sick with stress

“I felt I was at the point with teaching where I had no other choice – I was going to get unwell if I continued working at the college. I was going to have a stress-related health problem.”

Sophie* left teaching last year just five years after qualifying. With staff cutbacks adding to an already high workload and under pressure from the “obsession” with grades at her college on the outskirts of Bristol, she found herself working 70-hour weeks. As a newly-qualified teacher (NQT), she felt unsupported and didn’t get a pay rise in four years. “I felt I was going to burn out if I kept going,” she says.

Sophie’s story is not an isolated example. The Cable has spoken to teachers who have burned out after being pushed to their limits to get pupils good grades, and jump through arduous accountability hoops while schools are forced to get rid of the support staff around them. Teachers link many of these problems to reforms by the coalition and Tory governments, who tried to drive up standards with academisation, more competition between schools and a narrow focus on academic performance.

Recent research by Ofsted found the “overall wellbeing of most teachers is low” because of high workloads, a perceived lack of resources, too little support from leaders, and unrealistic parent expectations. Meanwhile a study led by University College London (UCL) found one in four teachers works 60 hours a week, with the average being about 50 hours.

Stress levels have an impact. According to government figures, one in three teachers in the south west who qualified in 2012 had left the profession by 2017. Earlier this year, the government launched a new strategy to ease teacher workload in order to prevent experienced staff from quitting. Research by the Times Educational Supplement suggests the South West will need 5,000 more secondary teachers by 2024 to keep up with pupil numbers.

In Bristol, figures newly obtained by the Cable under the Freedom of Information Act reveal worrying levels of teacher turnover. In some secondary schools in Bristol, our data shows, up to a quarter of teachers left during individual academic years. Across the nine schools we have data for, 432 teachers, including more than 100 NQTs, left their positions in the last five years.

Resources stretched thin

When teachers talk about workload, stress and burnout, the schools funding crisis comes up time and time again.

Throughout her time working at a college, Sophie witnessed cutbacks to “essential” support staff, from admin staff to teaching assistants. “Every time they made redundancies, our workloads increased dramatically,” she says, adding teachers had to teach outside their specialism.

“I’m definitely considering leaving education. Two years ago, I had to take a week off with stress. People are burning out and moving on.”

More pressure also falls on the support staff left as colleagues dwindle. Jack* was a teaching assistant (TA) at a Bristol primary school until January this year, when he quit because the pressure got too much.

When Jack joined a new school in 2015, it was a great place to work, with TAs well paid and able to support teachers fully. “There were sometimes three or four adults in a classroom, so every child with special needs had one-to-one support,” he recalls.

But as cuts hit, the budget for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND), who Jack was supporting, was quartered. Then came staff cutbacks. “The needs of our children went up; our staff went down,” Jack says. “People start leaving because they can’t take it anymore. There were four permanent teachers off with stress long-term and everyone had to step in to fill the gaps.”

As education secretary, Michael Gove made it possible for unqualified teachers to teach in academies and free schools: “Ultimately, it put me in dangerous situations,” says Jack of his own experience, which ultimately led to his departure. “Being alone with a difficult kid, looking after a class with difficult children… I’m not paid to be a teacher. [But] if something had happened, I’d have been held responsible.”

For those in leadership positions, funding cuts present a different kind of stress. Hannah* is on the senior leadership team at a Bristol primary school. “Head teachers lie awake at night wondering how they’re going to manage the budgets,” she says. “That’s not right.”

“There’s no way our current staffing structure can be sustained. And it’s only getting worse. We don’t know how we’re going to fund our staff next year. These are people’s careers and lives – and it’s pupils, at the end of the day.”

At Hannah’s school, many children have English as their second language; others come to school hungry, or are experiencing problems at home, such as domestic violence and drug abuse. “[Teachers are now being] social workers, they are language acquisition teachers, they are mental health workers,” she says. “I’ve noticed a real difference in stress levels. I struggle hugely morally with putting that pressure on my staff. And inevitably, the pupils don’t get the best out of their teachers either.”

Hannah talks about particular funding pressures for SEND children. “They’ve pretty much cut everything,” she continues – which means the school has to take money paying for other staff positions to provide one-to-one support for the kids who need it.

All this takes its toll. “I’m definitely considering leaving education. Two years ago, I had to take a week off with stress. People are burning out and moving on. I hear all sorts of stories about heads coming for jobs because they’re leaving education, and taking a big pay cut.”

“It was like a tsunami coming behind you. You’re scared to look back, because you know this damn thing is coming for you. Because you just haven’t finished everything. There’s no time.”

Pressure to perform

Almost everyone we speak to mentions the pressure to perform. League tables drive schools’ behaviour to meet the desired outcomes of the government – but not necessarily the learners.

One Bristol Cable member, who was a senior Department for Education (DfE) policy official during Gove’s reforms, says league tables “seem to have created real, imagined and perverse behaviours, such as teachers’ performance being based on year-on-year improvements in pupil results; English, maths and science qualifications being prioritised over topics that may interest students more; and teachers focusing all their attention on students close to a grade boundary”.

Shaila Gosrani, a secondary maths teacher in Bristol, left her job earlier this year. “I think the atmosphere in the school was pushing me day by day, and then I had a panic attack and couldn’t go into school. It’s not the stress of standing up in front of children, but of constantly feeling undervalued.”

Shaila’s school, she adds, “was following the pattern of lots of schools by letting the pressure of Ofsted and league tables turn it into an exam factory”. At the same time, the numbers of staff who didn’t get through their pay progression were rising every year.

Labour recently announced it would scrap Ofsted, and replace it with a two-phase inspection system where local authorities carry out “health checks”, which trigger more in-depth inspections should concerns arise. Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has said Ofsted measures poverty not excellence, and is fuelling the crisis in teacher recruitment.

There are signs under chief inspector Amanda Spielman that Ofsted’s focus is shifting from exam results to broader measures of quality education. For example, its new inspection framework measures how leaders are reducing teachers’ workload.

But fear of the regulator remains in some schools. William Brown, Bristol’s branch secretary for the National Education Union (NEU), told the Cable of schools making teachers jump through hoops Ofsted no longer specifically expects. “For most teachers, that’s a huge waste of their time. It’s an imagined accountability practice. But there are many schools that still demand it.”

Brown adds that the ways schools are graded leads to damaging short-term thinking, where heads come in, make drastic changes, and focus resources on children whose exam results will boost their league table position.

This short-termism has a huge impact on teachers, says Hannah, recalling a recent Ofsted inspection. “We needed to make rapid changes,” she says. “Holding teachers to account kind of spiralled, then you saw stress-related absence rocket. It was a necessary change, but if we’d had longer we could have helped people more – [it was] keep up or you’re left behind.”

Sometimes, experienced teachers can feel pushed out because they are on higher salaries and may be less accepting of change and increased workloads. According to school workforce statistics, only 14% of Bristol’s teachers are aged 50 or above – lower than many other local authorities.

Brown laments a loss of experience, citing one school that put several older teachers through unfair capability proceedings with impossible targets until they left – only to be criticised by Ofsted for not having enough experienced staff.

The Cable spoke to two experienced teachers who recently left teaching. One took early retirement three years ago due to being “worn out, basically”.

The former teacher describes spending holidays doing marking and preparation, just to make it to the next term. “It was like a tsunami coming behind you. You’re scared to look back, because you know this damn thing is coming for you. Because you just haven’t finished everything. There’s no time.”

Case Study: Oasis John Williams

Teachers who left the school, 2013/14 to 2017/18

Source: Freedom of Information data

How to stem the tide?

Of course, teachers need to be held accountable so public money is put towards the best education system possible. The question is, how can it be done without increasing stress and crushing teachers in the process?

Bristol NEU has been trying to negotiate a workload charter with Bristol council – but with so many schools now academies and outside the local authority’s control, it has limited power to hold institutions to account. Outside the city, at Castle School in Thornbury, teachers took matters into their own hands by striking in July, forcing the school to drop an increase in hours and agree to set up a workload charter.

Earlier this year, the government launched a new teacher recruitment and retention strategy, acknowledging the extent of its staffing problem – which is likely to grow because by 2025 there will be 15% more pupils in secondary schools than in 2018.

Bristol Cable members did so much to inform our reporting for this story.

Journalist Matty Edwards spoke to current and former staff from the Cable membership and beyond, adding invaluable insights and improving the story published.

Become a Cable member today and support journalism in the public interest.

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The proposals include providing early-career support and training to manage behaviour problems, slowing the pace of change in schools by restricting reforms to exams or the curriculum, and staggering bursaries to keep teachers in the profession longer. Starting teacher salaries will also rise from £25,000 to £30,000 by 2022, after minimal growth in recent years.

The former DfE policy official says these solutions “almost certainly” won’t stop teachers leaving, or recruit enough to fill gaps. Early-career support from local authorities was dismantled when schools became academies, he points out, adding that staggering bursaries could make teaching less attractive in a competitive jobs market.

Beyond funding schools properly so teachers are less stretched – a pretty simple solution –  the path to recruiting teachers, and stopping them burning out, while providing high-quality education, is difficult.

Unions suggest replacing Ofsted with self-evaluation and peer reviews. “If there was more of a trust, evaluate and collaborate-based approach, we’d have a much healthier education system where we could still measure things, and still hold people to account,” the NEU’s Brown says. “We wouldn’t be churning our teachers through the meat grinder and spitting them out.”

Teachers insist workloads and the pressure to produce results must reduce, to let them get on with teaching. Sophie says changing the way we talk about target grades would lower pressure on pupils and teachers to perform. Slowing the pace of change – as the government proposes – is crucial, Hannah adds, to give schools breathing room to prioritise their pupils’ needs.

However we do it, it is essential to reduce teacher stress, because it feels like we’ve now reached crisis point. Government attempts to drive up standards while underfunding schools are failing – and the current situation, with teachers leaving in droves, is simply unsustainable.

  • WHY I WROTE THIS

    During a months-long investigation into how Bristol’s secondary schools are using the controversial form of discipline isolation, it became clear to me how teachers are being stretched to their limits and put under enormous pressure. With the help of Cable members who work in education, I set out to find out why so many teachers are leaving the profession and what we can do about it. After all, I’m sure I don’t need to convince you why educating Bristol’s children is one of our biggest priorities.

    Matty Edwards

Additional reporting by Jonathan Morris

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity

Education as an election issue
I’m writing about education for General Election 2019, with a focus on school cuts and SEND provision. If you have personal experience or want to tell me what to look into, contact me below



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