As our schools deal with so many post-pandemic challenges amidst a cost of living crisis and a crisis in pupil mental health and staff wellbeing - it’s our leaders who’re feeling much of the strain, according to the charity Education Support.
It says workload has increased dramatically for leaders and it’s no longer the routine work of running a school that headteachers were previously used to.
We caught up with Director of Programmes at Education Support, Faye McGuinness, to find out how its DfE funded professional supervision programme is supporting leaders under pressure and what governing boards need to know about it.
We’re a UK charity dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of teachers and education staff and we support people working in education from early years through to higher education.
We deliver a range of individual support options, from a free, 24-hour helpline that’s staffed by BACP accredited counsellors, a financial grants programme for people that work in education or have retired from the education sector who might be struggling financially.
We’re also delivering a large government funded programme across England and Wales, including a large programme of professional supervision to school leaders in England. Finally, we carry out a lot of research that we use to have conversations at a policy level about changes that need to be made. This includes our annual Teacher Wellbeing Index and our latest report into the reality of teaching in 2023.
Well you won’t be surprised to hear (and this is also supported by our research) that there is an overwhelming feeling of having too much work to do. However it’s not just the workload that’s the problem, it’s the type of work that leaders are having to deal with.
We’ve seen a rise in safeguarding and behavioural issues as a result of covid, poverty and the cost of living crisis. Similarly, a rise in pupil mental health problems and because the broader social support system beyond schools isn’t adequately funded, schools have been left to mop up the impact of this. Our leaders are then responsible for supporting their own staff through these really challenging issues, which have really affected morale.
We’ve been delivering professional supervision work for over 18 months and whilst take up was slow initially, we’re now completely inundated. It’s taken that amount of time to get the sector to understand how important supervision is, and why creating space for yourself as a leader to reflect and think about the impact of your work matters.
For leaders in particular, there’s a real feeling of guilt - a belief that everybody should be getting help before them. We ask leaders to attend a one hour session, once a month for six months. It’s not exactly a huge amount of time to dedicate to their own wellbeing and even that they feel guilty about. There’s this notion that they shouldn’t be allocating time to themselves; they should be focusing on what they need to do for the school or for their team.
Alongside that, we sometimes find leaders reluctant to take up the offer as they feel they should be strong as they’re in charge and should therefore have all of the answers. We see huge benefits on individual wellbeing as a result of attending professional supervision, and leaders are reporting how impactful it is to have space to think about their work differently in an external setting. There’s still work to do in terms of leaders believing that they are important enough to access that support.
It’s usually done by Zoom or telephone and leaders speak to the same supervisor throughout the six sessions. It’s important for leaders to be in a space where they won’t be disturbed by a knock on the door and they can fully engage in the session.
Firstly, with professional supervision you’re in a room with someone who is qualified to hold that space for you. What we hear from leaders is that an external space to speak to somebody outside of the school environment is really important. A big part of it for leaders is, ‘Can I trust this person to say some of the things that I need to say? Am I going to be judged?’
The difference between supervision and things like coaching or having action-orientated conversations is that supervision is about ‘being’ not ‘doing’. It’s about how leaders feel about the work they do; a space where they can reflect on situations and ultimately the impact on the children and young people they support. They’re invited to think differently about the way they might be approaching things. It always links back to the impact they have as a professional and the work they do.
Counselling is a therapeutic offer that you would typically access if you’re feeling more unwell or have a specific issue that needs resolving. Whilst professional supervision may help leaders resolve issues, it isn’t the primary focus. There can be a stigma around accessing counselling but professional supervision within education feels more accessible because, as professionals who feel very strongly about their identity in education, being able to link that support back to that identity is really important.
A full evaluation of our DfE funded professional supervision will be available in the coming months, but the early indications are that it’s having a hugely beneficial impact on how people are feeling about being a leader in education, their interactions with staff and pupils as a result of this and really importantly it’s having huge impact on their own personal mental health and wellbeing.
We use something called the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Health and Wellbeing scale to measure someone’s journey through the sessions and we’re seeing improvements in leaders’ wellbeing and how they feel about their sense of purpose as leaders.
Many would say that school leaders should be accessing professional supervision throughout their career. If you work in health or social care for example, you often have access to clinical supervision as a mandatory part of the work you do but in education we don’t have that yet.
We’re seeing a number of leaders that access the six sessions, decide it was actually really worthwhile and choose to continue. It’s not every leader as some are unable to secure the budget for it and that might be something for governing boards to consider.
No, I wouldn’t say there’s full awareness yet. Awareness has increased massively but there are still people who’re finding out about it for the first time and the main reason people are hearing about it is through word of mouth.
There is still some work to do to get the education sector to understand what professional supervision is, what good quality professional supervision looks like and what the benefits are and why it’s important to support leaders in their practice as educators.
It’s useful for governors and trustees to understand what supervision is and why it’s important. When you talk about supervision, particularly within education, lots of people’s first thoughts are ‘we’re going to be judged, we’re going to be assessed, we’re going to be held accountable’.
It’s also important for governing boards to support leaders to find the time for it and make sure it’s not seen as some kind of ‘add-on’. Many leaders genuinely feel that they haven’t got the time to give themselves an hour a month and we need governing boards to give leaders the permission to do this and take this time. There is so much that always needs to be done in schools but leaders also need the time and space to sit back and reflect, not just forever operate in ‘go, go, go’ mode. Boards need to remind leaders that this is an essential part of their work.