Wellbeing a private or state matter?

February 18, 2019 5:46 pm
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After qualifying from my PGCE I remember vividly the scramble for jobs around Easter and the constant surveying of the TES and the conversations surrounding schools, areas, relocation etc. I had been educated at a boy’s comprehensive in South East London which had been a grammar until the mid-70s and there were never any connections with the private sector as it was called then apart from some feisty encounters at Rugby with the “posh” schools.

Therefore, when I got my first job it was not even on the agenda to apply for a private school. Indeed, in the climate of the time it would have been considered a heresy for anyone on the course to have done so. However, after three years at an excellent girls’ school in Essex I applied for a slight promotion to an independent school in East London. The impact of this in the early 90’s was very illustrative of the profession at the time. Many of my colleagues were supportive but for others this was a professional act of betrayal, selling out and almost Judas like! My point here, is that I think the landscape has changed with the advent of Academies and various forms of mainstream schooling but what are the major differences and issues that are similar and different for staff in the independent and state sector and what unites them?

I went on to spend the vast amount of my career in the independent sector and saw the changes there that really have affected wellbeing in this area of education. The main points I would highlight are:

  • Parental Expectations– These have always been an important element of the private sector because at the end of the day these schools are privately funded and increasingly see themselves as brands as much as places of education. In an increasingly competitive and global struggle to fill expensive places parental expectations have risen as independent schools have had to raise the bar against each other to compete for the students who can afford to pay for their services. This has meant, that teachers in the private sector have taken on more duties, extra-curricular provision, weekend work all at the behest of a catch all in their contract that stipulates “a reasonable request of the Headteacher.” Now, this is not necessarily wrong as the pressure is on to keep the roll up, ensure the parents are getting at least the provision the rival schools are offering and if possible, a little more to give you the edge in the hunt to fill places. However, I have seen a number of colleagues who have thought they had “hit the jackpot” with posts at prestigious schools to age five years in one with the pressure from the school to maintain and satiate the expectations of demanding parents.
  • School backing for staff. – This has been an area noted across the sector. The expectations form parents and the constant need and fear of the roll dropping, what local rivals are doing etc means that the core element of the school (apart from the students) the teachers are largely expendable. A complaint, a poor PDR, an unwillingness to engage with the “school ethos” will mark you out as someone who could potentially be moved on and euphemistically not “onside.” Anyone, who has found themselves in this situation will vouch for the stress this puts you under.
  • Erosion of professional status – One of the main benefits of the Independent sector was the belief that you received a higher salary. Now, this may be true in some schools, but you can rest assured you will earn that little bit of extra money over your state employed colleague 100 times over. Duties and the extra-curricular provision, expectation to attend fixtures and concerts will soon fill your spare time. The alarming news of many smaller schools not being able to pay the teachers pension contributions would make many think twice before applying there. It is also quite interesting, that many jobs advertised in the independent sector are now for HR or Business managers or development managers. Heads will surround themselves with non-educators and teachers will find that they are “just teachers”, usually pliable but quite often truculent when asked to go the extra mile when most of the office staff have gone home hours before.

This is not to say that working in the independent sector is a bad thing it is just not the job perhaps it was? The allure of smaller classes, magnificent buildings and amazing facilities should be balanced against the case above for your potential wellbeing. At a private school you will probably get a free lunch but…

My last few months of my career was spent with lovely colleagues in a very good state school, but I was able to contrast the pressures and impact on wellbeing in contrast to the independent sector and they seemed to me to be:

  • Workload – The amount of marking, the level it had to be at and the continuous volume of it was mind boggling. Assessments were a nightmare with bags full of books that could literally dislocate your shoulder. What made it worse was that it was never ending and the pressure to conform and maintain the agreed standard was understandable but to say the least unenjoyable.
  • Engagement – Kids are kids and there are good days and bad ones in schools. What shocked me and I have alluded to it in other posts was the lack of engagement and communications between staff. There was literally no time. I began to think my colleagues were surgically tied to their computers. E mail was a tsunami, briefings were just that and I could see that it would be very easy to become very isolated and insular whilst working in a room full of people. This was one of the key drivers in founding EVC, to try and reverse this trend in any way possible.

In summary, my hope is that wellbeing and mental health awareness initiatives for students will recognise that some of the above triggers need to be addressed if staff welfare is to be properly reviewed. The odd Pizza day or a Yoga session is nice but a token gesture. Leadership have a hugely pressured job to do, in both sectors but if you lose your foot soldiers you eventually lose the war.