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Let’s talk mental health with our teacher trainees

September 14, 2020, 13:33 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Let’s talk mental health with our teacher trainees says Emma Hollis...
Let’s talk mental health with our teacher trainees

Never have we needed teachers more than now and never has the hard work and dedication of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) providers been more vital in protecting the flow of entrants to the profession.

None of us can know what the world, and our schools, may look like over the next academic year but what I can confidently say is the ITT sector will continue to rise to the challenge, surpassing all expectation and continuing to ensure our children have the very best teachers in front of them (or the other end of a computer!).

Trainees are putting so much trust in us by applying to us now, in such an uncertain world, and are entering training knowing full well what the world looks like.

They are placing faith in us to get them through, when they do not know whether they are going to be in school in September, or even October or November.

They do not know which children they are going to be teaching, and whether they are going to be teaching online or in person, yet they are still trusting us, and we need to continue to be open with them.

As a guiding principle, compassion is something we need to show for our trainees. Trainees going into schools for the first time have feelings of nervousness anyway.

They are entering a new profession that they are genuinely very excited about, but now there is a deeper sense of the unknown.

Will they get it right? What are they going to be facing? And suddenly they are doing that in a period when the unknown is even greater than we have ever seen before.

Going back 18 months, I highlighted for the first time about how not enough has been done – and is being done – to support trainee teachers with their mental health, and this must begin with ITT.

Speaking to NASBTT’s members – School-Centred ITT providers and School Direct Lead Schools – I was hearing first-hand about a new generation of troubled teachers who needed help.

Through my own personal investigation I then discovered that in some local authority areas, up to 78 per cent of child and adolescent mental health service referrals were turned away during the period in which the previous year’s trainees were pupils.

Fast forward to today and we need to be even more mindful of the challenges.

There is absolutely no doubt that ITT providers work hard to support the needs of all their trainees, including their mental health needs, and yet difficulties around non-disclosure, variability in occupational health processes and lack of funding and capacity in schools mean that their efforts often do not receive the support needed from other stakeholders within the sector.

Tackling this important issue must be a team effort, and yet so many members of that ‘team’ are hampered by matters outside of their control.

Since my initial ‘call to action’, the issue around trainee teachers’ mental health has received much greater attention in the sector and beyond. In November last year, Education Support – a charity committed to improving the mental health and wellbeing of education staff, and of which I am a Trustee – published the latest findings from its Teacher Wellbeing Index.

While the headlines at the time focused on how work-related stress in the profession has increased for a third successive year – what went under the radar is that 43 per cent of NQTs suffered from mental health issues in the last academic year, compared to 34 per cent of all education professionals.

In many ways, this statistic encapsulates why mental health support must begin as soon as teachers walk through the school gate.

However, we also need acknowledgement of what happens in the ITT year being so important for later years. To provide truly effective mental health support for trainee teachers, there are three overarching challenges we must tackle:

Increasing levels of teacher autonomy and trust

It is vital for the profession that potential new entrants see it as an attractive option when considering their careers. High levels of stress, caused by excessive accountability in a fear-driven culture, permeates through the system.

Trainee teachers entering classrooms for the first time are often surprised and shocked by the levels of stress they encounter in the colleagues who are trying to support them.

As an introduction to the profession, this can be incredibly damaging – triggering mental health issues and anxiousness which leads to increased drop-out rates and higher levels of support needed, adding additional pressures into an already stretched system.

Until teachers are truly treated with the professional respect they deserve, this negative spiral will only continue to worsen.

Promoting healthy working practices and boundaries

ITT providers work extremely hard to minimise the workload of their trainee teachers but this has been frustrated by requirements to evidence progress and attainment.

Good progress is being made under the new Ofsted inspection plans which will no longer require providers to grade trainees, nor to gather and collate extensive files of evidence against the Teachers’ Standards.

What has yet to be addressed is the workload expectations placed on teacher educators themselves, particularly mentors in schools who are often overloaded with multiple roles.

Without proper recognition for the mentor role, supported with sufficient time, funding and resource, the well-meaning plans for the Early Career Framework (ECF) and ITT Core Content Framework may place such high demands on mentors that they will create unsustainable workloads, leading to greater levels of stress and deterioration of the mental health of those charged with nurturing new entrants.

Frontline early intervention emotional support

Every trainee teacher, in fact every member of staff right through to executive heads and CEOs, should have access to professional and confidential emotional support. This can help resolve issues and support education professionals to manage their mental health and wellbeing.

Early intervention is vital and we urge government to consider a nationally-funded Employee Assistance Programme for all frontline education staff.

Let’s also not forget about the mental health and wellbeing of senior leaders within the ITT sector who are facing momentous change with the introduction of the ECF, ITT Core Content Framework and ITT Inspection Framework, all against the backdrop of ongoing pressure to recruit sufficient numbers of trainees in a competitive graduate marketplace.

What you need to know

  • Not enough has been done – and is being done – to support trainee teachers with their mental health, beginning in Initial Teacher Training.
  • The 2019 Teacher Wellbeing Index found 43 per cent of NQTs suffered from mental health issues in the last academic year, compared to 34 per cent of all education professionals.
  • ITT providers represented by NASBTT report a “worrying number of cases where trainees are going back into schools and presenting quite severe mental health issues”.
  • There are difficulties arising from non-disclosure, variability in occupational health processes, and lack of funding and capacity in schools.
  • Trainee teachers are often shocked by the levels of stress they encounter in the colleagues supporting them – levels of teacher autonomy and trust must be increased.
  • Mentors have unsustainable workloads driven by unrealistic expectations – healthy working practices and boundaries must be promoted.
  • All trainee teachers should have access to professional and confidential emotional support – frontline early intervention is needed.

Emma Hollis is Executive Director of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT).

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