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Why the Department for Education (DfE) can’t see for looking

Steve Waters

Founder/CEO Teach Well Alliance

19th June, 2018

When I was growing up, when my mum found something she had been looking for that was clearly visible, she would say ‘I can’t see for looking’. A similar phrase is: ‘I can’t see the forest for the trees’. Both of these sayings suggest that someone is unable to see something which is in plain sight.

In my 30 years as a teacher, during 6 years working within a local authority school improvement team, and more recently as a freelance trainer and consultant, I have seen schools experience relentless change. I was responsible for spearheading or supporting many of the initiatives which the National Strategies rolled out between 1997-2011. Despite its overly instructive structure, there was much to applaud in what was, and still remains, the most wide-ranging school development programme in the world to have been co-ordinated nationally. At its heart were the aims of improving attainment and engaging pupils from Early Years to Key Stage 4 with carefully organised, engaging programmes. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the many exceptional teachers I supported, especially in my specialisms of whole-school literacy, talk for learning and developing a love of reading.

Now that I am focusing on increasing retention by creating a culture of teacher wellbeing through my company the Teach Well Alliance, I can now look back on the work I did for the National Strategies with greater objectivity. I realise that, then and now, the DfE ‘couldn’t see for looking’ while supporting this ambitious project.

Broadly speaking, schools where teachers are happy, work together as a community and are appreciated for their work benefit from initiatives like the National Strategies. They are more capable of managing change and adapting. Attrition is lower - their teachers can support projects for longer, so there is more continuity and less disruption to the teams the school builds to deliver specific projects.

Conversely, schools where teachers are unhappy, work mainly in isolation, and do not receive recognition for their work do not benefit from such initiatives. Instead, the initiatives add to what is already a stressful job and a hostile environment. A top-down approach often characterises leadership which tells teachers what to do and holds them to account when they fail. Schools like this are poor at managing change. Teacher turnover is high and so there is less stability and little continuity in the teams that are charged with delivering initiatives.

So, what is it that the DfE ‘can’t see for looking’? It is simply this: however good the initiative, however much funding is associated with it (and there is not much of this around right now), however carefully it is delivered, monitored and evaluated, it will not raise attainment if the wellbeing of teachers is not addressed as a school priority. When the DfE has been searching for the solution that will raise attainment, it can’t see for looking that, unless teachers are in a good place mentally, the Department will not be able to find that solution. Or the DfE might find it, but teachers will be mentally ill-equipped to deliver it.

I will use football to make my point. On the training ground, your team is developing a strategy to give them the best possible chance of scoring from free kicks. Your strikers have practised getting into a scoring position and hitting the ball first time, aiming for the top corners to make it as difficult as possible for the ‘keeper to save their shots. However, the manager has left mental preparation to the individual members of the team. He has expected each player to cope with the changes needed for the new strategy. No deadlines have been imposed for when training sessions should finish. Players have been working 16-hour days to get the new strategy right. Their sleep has not been monitored and many of the players have not been able to relax and switch off – some are getting no more than 4 hours sleep. Tiredness has also led to many of the players eating junk food – often last thing at night.

The team loses 3-0 in its first match against a side which they should have beaten easily. The pundits comment that the team were better technically, especially during free kicks, but looked exhausted after the first 30 minutes of the match. The manager had failed to look after the wellbeing of his players and paid the price. He ‘could not see for looking’ that their mental health, and not the new free kick strategy, had to be his priority. If the mental needs of the players had been taken care of, the technical strategy would have had more chance of being a success.

So, it doesn’t matter how many strategies, innovations or policies the DfE promotes in our schools. None of them will work effectively unless the teachers charged with delivering them are looked after. Currently, no funding is allocated to the mental wellbeing of our teachers. Workload is being addressed, but as I have pointed out in my articles and blogs, this is only one of 6 factors that schools need to address to tackle Burnout.

There is nothing more important in classrooms than the relationship between the teacher and their learners. Nothing. To be able to cultivate an effective academic and emotional relationship with each of their learners, teachers need to be mentally fit, engaged, energised, patient, understanding, emotionally intelligent and motivated. Sadly, the stress and high stakes accountability teachers face in many - perhaps most - of our schools is leading to unhealthy stress, Burnout, demoralisation, resignations and disenchantment with the profession they joined to be creative educators and to enjoy working with young people.

Until the DfE can see that the mental health of our teachers is critical to the success of our students and stops looking for the solution that will raise attainment in our schools, their initiatives will continue to be unsuccessful in the very schools where they are most needed.

Steve Waters is the Founder and Director of the Teach Well Alliance. He works with schools to reduce workload and stress and improve staff wellbeing. His specialism is teacher Burnout and mental health.

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