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17th March 2011

Meeting Rochdale Teachers


Yesterday, I drove through miserable fog and drizzle to speak at an NUT meeting in Rochdale’s magnificent town hall. It made me reflect on the sad demise of local public funds. Local councils now have insufficient to fund essential services never mind affording glorious public buildings. I wonder how the councillors who built the town hall would have reacted to the national government of today. I suspect the late Cyril Smith, former Mayor and Liberal MP for Rochdale, might have had something to say about the current coalition.   As you enter the town, you pass under a bridge displaying ‘The Home of Co-operation’, but even with Rochdale’s admirable heritage, stress in the workplace is probably as high as elsewhere.


You may wonder what any of this has to do with teacher stress? In spite of the growth in academy schools, local authorities remain the employer of the vast majority of teachers.  Their ability to operate healthy working environments crucially depends on both the demands made of them and the funding they have available.  The expectations falling on authorities in relation to Education are significant.  The emphasis of their work has shifted from one of providing support for schools to being a key part of the accountability system by which schools and teachers are judged.  Central government holds local authorities accountable for ‘school standards’ and they often react with monitoring activity which teachers routinely describe as ‘much worse than OFSTED’.


The expansion of their monitoring role, combined with shrinking resources, has led to the demise of many support functions historically provided by the local authority. Those ‘non-judgemental’ advisory staff whose help was welcomed by teachers have become very rare if they exist at all.  School specific human resources teams, who were able to provide skilled support for teachers, have experienced severe cuts.  HR support is now often outsourced or provided by generic staff who may lack experience and expertise in the Education context.


When I speak to groups of teachers, the most fascinating part is always the questions asked and the observations made. Yesterday, there were interesting comments about the best ways to address very stressful working environments. When it is possible, collective responses to stress are almost always more effective.  Groups of teachers who refuse accept unreasonable demands are in a strong position to achieve change, especially with the support of their unions.


Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to achieve a collective approach. Sadly, in some of the most stressful environments, teachers may be very reluctant to admit to stress or may be simply too worried about the consequences of raising concerns.  As a profession, teachers are not good at recognising and dealing with their own stress or that of their colleagues.


In these schools, it is essential to make sure that the employer complies with Health and Safety legislation.  Too many of those who employ teachers deny the need to do this, but they must. The HSE web site makes the position quite clear. Employers must “Decide what could harm people and what precautions to take. This is your risk assessment. You must act on the findings of your risk assessment, by putting sensible controls in place to prevent accidents and ill health and making sure they are followed.”


The evidence that stress causes illness amongst teachers cannot be denied. Research findings described elsewhere on this site make that absolutely clear.