The Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness week runs from 18th – 24th May and this year’s theme is ‘Kindness’.
We couldn’t imagine the situation we’d be living through when these dates were announced months ago. The severity of global events, not only Covid-19 itself, but the measures put in place to keep us safe, have meant that we’re now far more aware of our mental health than ever before. It’s also a time where we’re in need of kindness more than ever, too.
Schools have worked hard to help children continue to learn over the last few weeks while remaining open for vulnerable children and children of key workers.
A recent NASUWT teaching union survey found that 51 % of teachers who should have been self-isolating as result of Covid-19 were asked to attend work for at least some time during the first week of the partial school closures. The survey also found that, while 7 in 10 teachers said they felt their school was ‘treating them fairly’, a significant number of teachers did not have the resources or information to work safely.
The pressure to successfully navigate so much change in a short time, compounded by much uncertainty and fear over a serious illness has put even more strain on the wellbeing of education workers. The sector was not without challenges before the coronavirus pandemic. There are a number of studies to suggest that teacher wellbeing was an area of concern before the world had to contend with Covid-19.
Education Support is the UK’s only charity providing mental health and wellbeing support services to all education staff and organisations. Every year since 2017 they have conducted a survey, in conjunction with YouGov, into educational professionals’ mental health and wellbeing and analyse trends over time. It’s important to monitor these results, as the 2019 Teacher Wellbeing Index showed that work-related stress has increased for a third consecutive year. 72% of all educational professionals (84% of senior leaders) described themselves as stressed and over a third had experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year. Now recognised as the most in-depth insight into education staff mental health and wellbeing, the 2019 report included responses from more than 3,000 staff and leaders.
How can governors affect stress in schools?
Governors may feel like they can have little impact on reducing this stress as they are so far removed from the day to day running of the school. But boards have a significant part to play – governors are central to fostering an atmosphere of support and openness, where prioritising mental health and wellbeing is paramount. The Teacher Wellbeing Index showed that 49% of all education professionals considered their organisational culture had a negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing.
This is something boards can have a positive influence on, both now in response to the pandemic when education professionals are being asked to operate in ways they never have before, and as we transition back to a more familiar way of life. Now more than ever, boards should be making sure that the questions they ask, the way they ask them and the strategy and ethos they set for the school are positive, supportive, encouraging, and purposeful.
How might board meetings look once schools are running as usual again?
If you’ve not had a board meeting since the government advice on self-isolating and social distancing came into effect, it’s possible that there will be one on the agenda before the end of the academic year. The Department for Education released the School governance update March 2020 which includes advice for governing boards on conducting meetings via alternative methods rather than in person, focusing on urgent and time-sensitive issues for meetings that are held, and prioritising providing support to their school leaders and staff where needed, to allow them to get on with operational matters.
Statutory governance functions remain, so it’s important to recognise that boards still have an important role during the Covid-19 period – albeit one that is different than usual.
This term, we expect that communications between the staff and board will operate a little differently. The chair may find themselves having more frequent check-ins with the headteacher and operational matters may end up being discussed more so than usual. It’s important to still discuss matters including safeguarding, learning provision for all and health and wellbeing. Schools must still follow Keeping children safe in Education and should have access to a Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) at the very least if one is not available on site.
It is important for the board, through the chair, to know how the staff are coping with the situation. Use our list of potential discussion points below to help you to navigate these conversations. The key thing that any governor can do is to support school staff and to let them know the board is there to help. This may mean having to put a carefully planned agenda on hold indefinitely and pausing other tasks and projects so schools can focus on the immediate priorities. Staff may be dealing with illness directly or indirectly, or may still be trying to balance childcare with home working.
Show your appreciation
Just as the nation has been coming together to Clap for Carers, school staff should know that their efforts in this time of crisis are valued and making a positive difference to the school community. If you haven’t already, now is the time for your board to write that email or send that card. The changes in the way schools have operated for recent weeks has put a spotlight on the work schools do to nurture and develop our young people on a daily basis. We hope this is something no one will take for granted again.
We have a dedicated coronavirus page where you can see resources to support schools and governors during the pandemic.
Watch our recent webinar on using Microsoft Teams for board meetings and governance during the coronavirus pandemic.
Organisations including Education Support are offering a range of support options for education staff who need it during this time, including a free, confidential helpline manned 24/7 by trained counsellors on 08000 562 561. You can download a poster to share with staff here.