From education to employment

Teachers & pupils at breaking point: could the Careers Strategy help?

Emma Finamore, Editor,

In the month we mark Mental Health Awareness Week – which this year focussed specifically on stress – it was reported that UK teachers are in crisis, with thousands quitting and being signed off work due to job-related anxiety.

Just under 40,000 teachers quit the profession in 2016 – the latest figures available, according to a report by the Guardian – which is about 9% of the workforce, with the number of women leaving secondary schools increased by more than a quarter in just four years.

This year, teaching unions have warned of an “epidemic of stress”, citing the 3,750 teachers who were signed off on long-term sick leave in 2017 because of pressure of work, stress, anxiety and mental illness. That’s one in 83 teachers who spent more than a month off work in 2016-17.

Last year, the Education Support Partnership (ESP), a charity that offers mental health support to anyone working in education in England and Wales, said that over the previous 12 months it had seen the number of teachers calling its confidential helpline rise by 35%, to 8,668 cases.

“What we’re hearing is that people have lost a sense of agency,” said ESP chief executive, Julian Stanley, at the time. “There is constant change – new initiatives, new curriculum changes. A number of pressures tell us that it’s not a whinge; it’s a fact. Teachers feel they need to be trusted, and need support.”

Teachers are also often burdened with responsibilities (and stress) that are outside of their remit, such as breakfast and after school clubs. One teacher-in-training based in north London told me this month that she feels “more like a social worker than a teacher”, citing the extra curricular work she does and the behaviour she has to cope with from her pupils.

They are also asked for detailed careers advice that they are not trained to be knowledgeable about. Our annual report last year – The School Leaver Careers Market 2017 – found that 67% of subject teachers say they their students ask them about school leaver options.

This is a frequent occurrence too: 44% say their students ask them for advice about the future more than once a week, and a further 19% say it happens more than once a month.

Not only are teachers leaving the classroom – both temporarily and permanently – but not enough of them are being replaced. There is now a shortfall of 30,000 classroom teachers, particularly at secondary level, where 20% of teacher training vacancies are unfilled. This means more work and pressure for those left schools. 

While teachers are at breaking point, the picture is equally as concerning for their pupils, and much of their stress appears to be related to the education system. Last year the NSPCC reported a surge in the number of young people seeking help through the Childline support service, specifically due to worry about their exam results.

In May 2017, Childline delivered 3,135 counselling sessions on exam stress in 2016/17 – a rise of 11% over the previous two years. One in five of these took place in May as pupils faced upcoming exams, with many telling counsellors that they were struggling with subjects, excessive workloads and feeling unprepared.

12-15-year-olds were the most likely age-group to be counselled about exam stress, but 2017 saw the biggest rise – up by 21% since 2015/16 – among 16-18-year-olds, many of whom will have been preparing for A-levels to determine university places.

Another report published last year demonstrated how much pressure and stress the UK’s school-aged young people are under. They were found to be among the world’s unhappiest teens. The research from Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) also found that UK teenagers are more anxious about testing than their counterparts in almost any other country – including South Korea and China – and have high internet usage associated with poor test scores.

The UK was ranked 38th out of 48 countries based on how satisfied 15-year-olds are with their lives in a report.  With a score of 6.98 out of 10, UK pupils rated themselves less happy than their peers in Lithuania (7.86), Russia (7.76) and Uruguay (7.70). 

UK students also reported some of the highest levels of exam-related stress across the globe.  More than seven in 10 (71.9%) of UK pupils said they feel “very anxious” about tests, even when they are well prepared. 

“PISA results show that teachers’ practices, behaviour and communication in the classroom are associated with students’ levels of anxiety,” the report said. “After accounting for students’ performance and socio-economic status, students who reported that their science teachers adapt the lesson to the class’s needs and knowledge were less likely to report feeling anxious even if they are well prepared for a test, or to report that they get very tense when they study.” 

With both teachers and their pupils seemingly experiencing more and more stress, how can schools adapt to the situation? Oddly, the government’s Careers Strategy – currently in its first year – could form part of the solution.

If implemented properly, the new dedicated careers leaders will help relieve the pressure of careers advice by giving teachers somewhere to direct pupils. Better focus on all school leaver options – not just university – would mean less pressure on exam results. It could even mean we start judging schools by the careers that pupils go on to forge, rather than the exam results they yield.

Secondary schools will be expected to provide pupils with at least one meaningful interaction with businesses every year, and national careers hubs will be set up to support children in the most disadvantaged areas, linking together schools, colleges, universities and local businesses to broaden the aspirations of young people.

These interactions between schools and businesses, and focus on different routes into work – again, if implemented properly – could help alleviate pupil’s exam stress by broadening their horizons, helping them see how a range of educational outcomes can result in a successful professional life.

Something must be done to remedy the stress in UK schools: the Careers Strategy could be a good place to start.

Emma Finamore, Editor,

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