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Head teachers speak of Covid stress

25 September 2020

Sixty per cent report a decline in their mental health

Archbishop Tenison’s School

The head teacher of Archbishop Tenison’s School, in south London, Simon Wilson, with two of the school’s pupils

The head teacher of Archbishop Tenison’s School, in south London, Simon Wilson, with two of the school’s pupils

HEAD TEACHERS at church schools have reported being overworked and suffering from mental-health problems, as they seek to meet the challenges of the pandemic.

They have said that the demands of supporting staff, parents, and children, together with ensuring that schools meet safety guidelines, have contributed to the stress. But parents and staff have been supportive, they say.

Their stories are borne out by research published by the charity Education Support in a report published this month, Covid-19 and the Classroom: Working in education during the coronavirus pandemic. It says that 60 per cent of head teachers surveyed reported a decline in their mental health. Among teachers, the figure was 52 per cent.

The head teacher of Ellis C of E Primary School, Barnsley, Rachel Hurding, said this month that, from March, when the lockdown started, until the end of the school year in July, “there was no work-life balance. I needed to be available to support staff, parents, and children alongside school being open for key-worker children throughout the holidays, too.”

Her job had changed dramatically since the pandemic, she said. “We have always taken risk assessments and safety seriously, but we had to lead through a crisis with little information. We had to become experts on the virus and hygiene. Some days, I feel like a medic and a cleaner.”

When the Prime Minister spoke in June about pupils’ catching up during the summer, Ms Hurding became “increasingly anxious about burnout for teaching staff and myself, as many of us had not had a break since February half-term”. The summer holidays had provided a much needed rest and opportunity to see loved ones. “Many of us had not seen our families, because of social distancing, to keep as safe as possible.”

The situation had been made more difficult by the fact that guidelines from the Department for Education had been “constantly updating”, she said. “The major guidelines often seem to come out at the weekend — especially a bank holiday.”

Parents had been supportive, however: “We have been a lifeline for a lot of families, and that sense of community has been a real positive for our school during lockdown.”

The head teacher of Archbishop Tenison’s School, in south London, Simon Wilson, said last week that the pandemic had proved “a very difficult time”, but it had also caused the school to “re-evaluate who we are as a school — particularly how we have a relationship with nature in such a concrete space. For me, personally, it’s been about how I grow and develop the staff, something which ties in with the rebirth of the school.”

He said that he had found his job challenging, and sometimes isolating. “I’m used to having some sort of break in the summer where I don’t think about work. But that didn’t happen this year, as I felt like I was always on call, particularly as we felt the right thing to do was run a food kitchen from the school during Covid-19.

“I was sometimes going into work when London was deserted, and I was there every day putting myself at risk. I also didn’t know where work and home started and finished, because there was a lot of working from home, and I was never able to fully leave the job behind, even when I wasn’t in the building.”

Mr Wilson said that his Christian faith had helped him to cope. “I’ve seen others who have stopped teaching, but my faith is what keeps me going, and I feel like the reason I haven’t burnt out is because I’ve never lost my purpose for doing this.”

The head teacher of Patterdale C of E Primary School, in Cumbria, Liz Stewart, also spoke this week of the challenges of adapting policies to ensure that the school was safe. “It’s been crazy,” she said. “As a school, we have been dealing with so many changes to policies, but we’re so conscious of focusing on the children and their needs, as they are the most important thing. I’m often waking up in the middle of the night with so many ideas about ways to do things better.”

The head teacher of the Venerable Bede C of E Academy in Sunderland, David Airey, said this month: “There were a lot of things fired at schools that had to be done in a very short time-frame, and we had to get it right. I don’t think it’s the Government’s fault, as they didn’t want coronavirus to hit, either.”

The absence of children from school did not ease the pressure on staff, he said: in fact, “the amount of things I had to do increased.” His staff had struggled to maintain a work-life balance, “but we looked after each other, as we believe we’re in this together.”

The general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, Patrick Roach, said in a statement on Tuesday that head teachers “have had to contend with shifting, often vague guidance, and last-minute U-turns from the Government, which has made it extremely difficult for them to plan with confidence for the full reopening of schools”.

He continued: “The Government has failed to provide schools with the necessary additional funding, resources, and equipment to support the significant additional costs associated with maintaining safety and learning provision during lockdown. This threatens to place even greater strain on school leaders managing already stretched budgets.”

The Government should provide head teachers with “the funding, testing infrastructure, and clarity they need, as we head into the huge challenge of the next few months”, he said.

The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, wrote to school staff, including head teachers, this month, as schools reopened for the new academic year. “The safety and wellbeing of you, your staff and your pupils has always been my priority,” he wrote. “I want to reassure you again that all your staff and pupils have access to testing if one of them should develop Covid-19 symptoms.

“We have provided a small supply of home test kits if anyone develops symptoms while at school or college and who may otherwise be unable to access a test. Every school or college that has been attended by someone who tests positive will receive direct support and advice from their local PHE health protection team.”

Chris Sharpe, a teacher working at a primary school in Cambridge during the lockdown, spoke this month of disillusionment among teachers. “It’s a numbers game, and people want to get teachers in quickly; so teacher training can be like a blast furnace,” he said.

“I think that’s fantastic with inert metals, but I’m not sure how well it works with human beings. You find out that people can cope well under pressure, but it would be much better to develop people rather than just saying to them ‘Go out and see how you do.’ That makes people more likely to just quit within a year of starting.”


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