From education to employment

Inspections deemed ‘not fit for purpose’ by teachers and education staff as they battle loneliness, stress and burnout 

teacher looking stressed at student

The overall picture of wellbeing is poor in the sector, with senior leaders remaining at risk, and classroom teachers seeing a significant decline in overall wellbeing. The Teacher Wellbeing Index 2023 has been released.

The report shows significant feelings of loneliness and isolation experienced by staff in the sector. The report found that teachers and education staff feel twice as lonely at work (14%) compared to the national population of England (7%).

The report also highlights the breakdown in trust between the teaching profession and its regulatory bodies across the UK, especially Ofsted in England. The findings raise serious questions about the effectiveness of inspections, the impact on school leader and staff wellbeing and implications for learner outcomes.

Using data from a survey of over 3,000 education staff the report found that:

  • 73% of staff thought inspections were not fit for purpose
  • 60% of staff thought inspections do not provide a comprehensive picture of strengths and weaknesses of schools or colleges
  • 71% of staff thought inspections negatively impact their mental health and wellbeing

Stress levels have increased across the sector when compared to 2022. The highest increase has been seen among school teachers, and insomnia is also on the rise across the workforce:

  • 78% of all education staff are stressed (3% increase on 2022)
  • 89% of all senior leaders (rising to 95% among headteachers) and 78% of school teachers reported feeling stressed
  • 78% of school teachers are stressed (6% increase on 2022 and the highest of all job roles)
  • 36% of school teachers reported experiencing burn-out (9% increase on 2022)
  • 51% of staff experience insomnia or difficulty sleeping (6% increase on 2022)

This is a particularly concerning population of teachers and education staff who experience acute stress or burnout together with feelings of isolation at work (31% and 23% respectively). These combined factors point to elevated mental health risk (up to and including an elevated suicide risk[1]) among this small but vulnerable group. At least 6% of senior leaders and 5% of all staff experience acute stress and/or burnout and loneliness together. The report calls for the Government to do more to protect this cohort of education staff.   

Professor Julia Waters, sister of Headteacher Ruth Perry said:

“It should not have taken the death of my sister, the headteacher Ruth Perry, to make government finally take notice and, I hope, urgent action to address the mental health crisis in education. Ruth was not the first headteacher or teacher to take her own life following an Ofsted inspection. I am determined that she will be the last.

That 82% of senior leaders state that inspections have a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing is a shocking indictment of long-standing government inaction to address this important concern. That 65% of teachers and education staff in England believe Ofsted inspections to be unreliable, and 75% of all staff said that they are not fit for purpose, starkly demonstrate that Ofsted has lost the trust and confidence of the teaching profession.

The time is long overdue for a radical reform of Ofsted’s punitive, unreliable and fatally-flawed school inspection system. It is my family’s hope that the Education Select Committee’s parliamentary inquiry into Ofsted’s work with schools will finally bring about a fully reformed schools inspection system, which prioritises the wellbeing of teaching staff as well as of schoolchildren.”

John Smith*, Primary Headteacher said:

“My personal wellbeing has been affected by inspections. There is stress, anxiety and a lot of sleepless nights. Inspection day itself puts huge amounts of pressure on staff (to the point of dread). Often on the day staff are having to do things for the benefit of inspectors – not pupils.”

“Knowing an Ofsted inspection could be around the corner leaves you feeling constantly on edge. You second guess yourself. You ask yourself, what is best for the children versus what would Ofsted say?”

“Staff have needed to take sick leave following an inspection due to the stress of the day. And there is no respite for staff. The inspection day is over and then it’s straight on to the next challenge. You can feel tearful and emotional following an inspection – the stress can take a long time to come down from.” 

Sinéad Mc Brearty, Chief Executive of Education Support commented: 

“These are not findings that anyone wants to see. Our education workforce is stressed and unhappy at work. Such high levels of burnout, overwork and loneliness will not lead to a world class education system. 

Working in schools and colleges is unsustainably demanding and not improved by the level of mistrust the profession has in the inspection process. 

Children and young people need to be surrounded by energised and committed teachers to give them the best chances in life. Instead, the reality of working life in education is causing talented educators to leave the profession in their droves. We can and must do better.”

Education Support makes the following recommendations to UK education departments (full details on in the Conclusions and Recommendations on page 54 of report):

  • All education departments must develop a coherent strategy to improve the wellbeing of the education workforce
  • Suicide prevention must be prioritised
  • It’s time to overhaul the school and college inspection
  • We must invest in soft leadership skills
  • We need a funding settlement that matches current levels of demand on schools and colleges
  • The wider ecosystem of public services must also be properly funded
  • A review of training frameworks to reflect the current reality of educators’ lives and embed mental health and wellbeing 

Sector Response

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“These stark findings are further evidence that the education workforce is under unsustainable pressure. The persistent underfunding of education has left teachers and leaders constantly needing to do more with less.

“Teaching is a hugely fulfilling profession because of the power of education to transform the lives of children and young people. But we know that exhaustion and unsustainable workloads are commonly cited as reasons why staff leave and this survey makes clear that many are suffering from stress, anxiety and other mental health issues.

“This leads to a vicious cycle with schools struggling to recruit replacements – putting remaining staff under ever-more pressure.

“Significant action to address the long-term erosion of pay and tackle workload across the education sector are needed if the recruitment and retention crisis is to be addressed.

“An excessively harsh system of inspections and performance tables are other areas that have a negative impact on wellbeing. A more proportionate method of holding schools to account, as opposed to one that drives destructive levels of workload, stress and anxiety, is long overdue.

“The lack of trust that school and college staff have in the inspection system, as identified by this survey, is unsurprising and underscores the urgent need for reform in this area.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“This report paints a truly damning picture of the enormous personal and professional challenges many school leaders and teachers are being expected to overcome to deliver the education our children deserve.

“No parent would want their children to be taught in an environment in which dedicated education professionals are struggling with their mental health and in some cases being driven to despair.

“This situation is being fuelled by Ofsted inspections which can have a devastating, sometimes dangerous, impact upon staff wellbeing, while failing to reliably assess schools or improve pupil outcomes.

“As well as flawed, high-stakes accountability, unsustainable levels of workload and funding challenges are creating a perfect storm and vicious cycle in which the recruitment and retention crisis is growing, heaping more pressure onto beleaguered staff.

“The government must get a grip on the situation and tackle the causes as a matter of urgency – but beyond that, it feels like a complete reset is needed between government and the profession with the aim of rebuilding teaching and school leadership as careers to aspire to.”

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