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Mental health toll on school leaders is fuelling recruitment and retention crisis, says NAHT

teacher looking stressed at student

Nearly half of school leaders (49%) needed professional help with their mental health or well-being in the last year, fuelling an already severe recruitment and retention crisis, a new survey has found.

The latest state of the nation survey by school leaders’ union NAHT reveals unsustainable pressures, including inspection, accountability and workload, are taking an increasing toll on leaders. The survey of nearly 1,900 leaders, also finds these pressures are deterring deputy and assistant heads from stepping up to headship.

Almost four in ten (38%) school leaders accessed professional support for their mental health or wellbeing in the last year. (1)  Leaders cited Ofsted pressures as the factor which had the greatest impact on their mental health.  

The union’s new report, Crisis Point, found almost three quarters (72%) of respondents said their job had harmed their mental health in the last year. Almost four-fifths (79%) had experienced increased worry, fear or stress about their job, and more than eight in ten (84%) said their role had impacted the quality of their sleep in the previous 12 months. (2)

For the first time, the survey found that a majority (57%) of serving leaders said they would not recommend school leadership as a career choice.  Almost two thirds (61%) said they were less satisfied in their role than a year ago.

The findings reveal more than half (51%) of school leaders are considering leaving the profession within the next three years for reasons other than retirement, with nearly nine in ten (88%) identifying the impact of their role on their personal wellbeing as a factor.

Significant numbers also cited workload pressures (83%), feeling helpless or overwhelmed in offering pupils pastoral support (61%), and pay failing to reflect the responsibilities of the role (53%).

Reluctance to take on responsibility continues to grow. More than six in ten (61%) assistant and deputy heads said they do not aspire to headship, up from 53% in 2021.  More than nine in ten (91%) cited concerns about the impact of the role on their well-being as a deterrent to headship, while four-fifths (81%) identified concerns about Ofsted inspection.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT’s general secretary, said:

“These dire findings paint a really bleak picture of the unacceptable toll school leadership is taking on our members and their mental health and wellbeing.

“Parents and carers will no doubt be equally alarmed that school leaders are being left seeking support with their mental health, feeling worried, stressed and unvalued, struggling to sleep, and considering quitting the profession.

“Reluctance to take on the role of head teacher is now an established and rising trend which will inevitably impact the wider school eco-system, and ultimately, children’s education.

“We regularly hear from school leaders who feel pushed to the edge of despair. Without decisive action, I fear these dedicated educators will be forced to leave the profession for their own health, leaving more children without the inspirational leaders and teachers they need.

“These findings must act as a clarion call to the government to do much more to tackle the root causes of what is now a full-blown leadership recruitment and retention crisis. That means taking serious action to address school leaders’ concerns over workload, Ofsted inspection, pay, funding and support for pupils with SEND.   

“Working in this profession and supporting young people’s learning and social development, can, and should always be, a rewarding experience. We urge government ministers to make it their New Year’s Resolution to do whatever it takes to restore school leadership and teaching as attractive, sustainable careers to aspire to.”

NAHT is calling for government action to address the issues contributing to the mental health and well-being crisis. This includes fundamental reform of inspection and accountability measures, an end to single-word Ofsted judgements, and further action to tackle unsustainable levels of workload, which it wants to inform every school policy development.

The union wants fully-funded support to be guaranteed whenever staff are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing.

NAHT is also urging the government to do more to value school leaders and teachers, including by empowering leaders to make decisions which meet pupils’ needs, without external interference. It wants the government to invest in pay and reform the pay structure, with 72% of members saying pay should maintain its value against inflation, and the same proportion that it should better reflect the responsibilities of the role.

NAHT surveyed 1890 school leaders between 21 September and 12 October 2023. The survey included head teachers, assistant and deputy heads, principals, heads of schools, school business leaders, executive leaders, and middle leaders, working across all school types and phases.

1) A further 7% percent wanted help, but did not know how to get it, and another 5% per cent also said they had needed support only to find it was unavailable.

2) In addition, more than three quarters cited a negative impact on their personal or family life (76%) and a similar proportion reported having inadequate time for exercise (73%).

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