health and wellbeing
‘One of the key things that we can do to support education staff, is to prioritise their mental health and wellbeing, alongside the mental health of children and young people’
SHP speaks to Faye McGuiness, Director of Programmes at Education Support, about how the pandemic has affected the health and wellbeing of the education sector and what more can be done to support people who work and are involved in education.
Many of our readers will know you already from your time as Head of Workplace Wellbeing Programmes at Mind, but this is the first time we have caught up since you started your role at Education Support, please can you give us an update on how you are settling in and what your role involves?
Faye McGuiness (FM): “Absolutely. So, Education Support is the only UK charity dedicated to supporting everybody that works in the education sector. That’s all the way through from primary school to higher education. We were set up by teachers, for teachers about 140 years ago.
“Essentially, we provide support at various levels, so we think about how we support individuals at an individual level, and make sure that people have access to support for their mental health and wellbeing, whether that’s through our helpline, our grants programme, or our work that we’re doing with head teachers.
“We also support people at an organisational level. So, helping schools, colleges and universities create the right cultures and conditions where staff mental health and wellbeing is prioritised. It’s asking the questions ‘how do you create psychologically safe work environments’.
“Lastly, we use the findings from our annual Teacher Wellbeing Index to make recommendations for policy changes and advocate for staff wellbeing to be at the heart of all policy decisions.
“My goal in my new role is to develop services and programmes that respond to the need of the sector and make an impact for those who need it most.
What was it like starting in a new role during a pandemic?
(FM): “My experience of it has been broadly positive. Education Support is a smaller organisation, so I was able to have a quick induction with everybody. What I learned from that experience is that it was so important to build those connections early on. Because, I think if you start new in an organisation in this way, and actually don’t build those connections early on, it’s easy for you to become withdrawn and more isolated.”
The education sector has been at the forefront of the pandemic but has not perhaps received the support and recognition that other frontline workers have. Why do you think that is and how has the pandemic affected the sector?
(FM): “I reflect on when I was working at Mind and I was leading the Blue Light Programme to support those working in the emergency services. It was at that moment where the Grenfell Tower Fire happened, and everybody sat up and commented on how extreme the role of a firefighter is and how much they are exposed to. It made me reflect that it often takes a crisis for people to wake up and recognise how difficult some of these jobs on the front-line are.
“So I think, as the pandemic went on, people started to absolutely recognise the role that education staff play, particularly those people that were trying to home school and trying to balance working, with parenting and home schooling.
However, sadly some of the rhetoric around teachers ‘getting loads of holiday breaks’ and the job being a ‘vocation, so they should appreciate it’ is still very much alive. But the reality is very different – education staff work incredibly long hours, have unmanageable workloads and are doing jobs that go far beyond just teaching.
“During the height of the pandemic, we did a report called COVID and the Classroom, in which we asked questions around, appreciation, and it was really interesting. We found out that 61% of all educational professionals felt greatly or somewhat appreciated by parents, guardians or their pupils and students. However, only 25% felt greatly or somewhat appreciated by the general public, and only 15% saying they somewhat or very appreciated by government.
“We carry out a yearly Teacher Wellbeing Index, and that really gives us a state of the nation when it comes to looking at the mental health and wellbeing of education staff. Our 2020 Index, which we carried out just as the pandemic was starting, really painted a picture of a workforce that was already in crisis before the pandemic. Nearly two thirds, 62%, of education professionals described themselves as stressed. Half (52%) said that they’d considered leaving the profession, due to the impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
“We were seeing an increase in levels of symptoms of poor mental health, such as tearfulness, lack of sleep, even before the pandemic hit. We’re just about to do our Index for this year, so it’ll be interesting to see what the outcome of that tells us.”
The Government has announced £17 million to boost the mental health support already available in education settings. How welcome is this, or do you think more needs to be done?
(FM): “Obviously, we welcome any boost in funding, because we know that mental health is chronically underfunded.
“A big part of that funding, £9.5 million, is to train a senior mental health lead from staff, in the next academic year. We know that, for many schools, colleges and universities, the person responsible for mental health and wellbeing is often somebody who has a full-time job as well. So, it becomes an add-on to their job and actually that makes it quite difficult for them to be able to focus on the things they need to make mental health a priority. So, there’s a question there around whether a senior mental health lead is going to have enough time to do what they need to do and make sure that that support is available.
“As part of the announcement, the government referenced the fact that they’ve launched a Staff Wellbeing Charter. Education Support were part of the development of that Charter, but we were also very clear that a Charter can’t stand in isolation without tackling some of the real key drivers to poor mental health and wellbeing in the sector.
“Back in 2018, the green paper was published on Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health. A £300 million ‘shake-up’ was described at that time and I think it’s really important that we’re very clear on what progress has been made against key commitments. . So, for example, one was to have senior mental health leads in school by 2025. That has only just got started this autumn, as part of this new announcement, but this was a recommendation that was set out back in 2018. I think we can sometimes get lost in what progress is, or isn’t , being made when new announcements are made.”
The pandemic has had a big effect not just on teachers, but also on children. Are education staff sufficiently trained to spot the signs and support children with mental ill health?
(FM): “I think it’s going to look different in different schools, depending on the level of training and support that teachers and individuals have. I think it’s important to stress that education staff are not just education staff anymore, they are expected to be safeguarding professionals, they are looking out for the wellbeing of children, they are having to look out and spot signs of mental poor mental health, particularly with a cohort of children who have just been through a pandemic. So, I think that they are doing the absolute best that they can do but all of this adds huge pressure onto what is already a stressful job
“I go back to the point about the person who is responsible for mental health and wellbeing often doing the role as an ‘add-on’. This can no longer be an ‘add on’ to somebody’s job. I there is absolutely more that we can do to support teachers in being able to support children and young people. I think that one of the key things that we have to do to make sure that our education staff can show up, both physically and emotionally, is to prioritise their mental health and wellbeing, alongside the mental health of children and young people.”
To speak, confidentially, to Education Support, call the free helpline on 08000 562 561.
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