IT is deeply worrying, not just for teachers but pupils too, that the mental health of those working in the teaching profession is being put at risk, with rising numbers of absences linked to stress and anxiety.
I am therefore pleased to see The Yorkshire Post drawing attention to this now widespread problem of severe stress levels among teachers.
It is no secret that teaching is a demanding job – and rightly so. As a teacher you are always acutely aware that how well you do your job will directly impact the futures of so many young people. Needless to say, it has always been the case that teachers work incredibly hard. Teachers regularly go above and beyond their contracted hours to ensure they have prepared the best lessons, or to give a child who is struggling to keep up in class some extra support.
As a former teacher myself, this was something I and my colleagues were more than happy to do.
But it is something else altogether when the reasons you find yourself working later and later every night, arriving at work earlier each morning or coming in regularly during your holiday, has nothing to do with genuinely supporting pupils learning.
When your work life balance is becoming more and more distorted, you start to have trouble sleeping (which many teachers report) and to top it all off, the public sector pay freeze means you have seen your wages effectively being cut year after year.
Is it any wonder that more and more dedicated professionals are being pushed to breaking point, and that we have a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention?
So what can be done to solve this? As a Liberal Democrat MP, I believe that first and foremost we need to completely overhaul the broken system of high stakes inspections and assessments in our schools. It places undue pressure on both teachers and pupils and distracts from the delivery of high quality teaching.
We should abolish Ofsted and replace it with a system of school inspections which doesn’t reduce schools and teachers to simply ‘passing’ or ‘failing’. Inspections, when they occur, should look in the round at the culture of a school. That includes how well the school supports the wellbeing of teachers and pupils. Where schools are struggling they should be supported to improve, not simply written off.
That is not to say that it isn’t important that we ensure high standards in our schools. It is. But the way the current system works, or rather doesn’t work, is doing more harm than good.
With that in mind, I also fail to see the benefit of league tables as they are currently formulated. The toxic culture of competition between schools as they vie for a better ranking than their neighbours, based on a narrow set of criteria, takes valuable focus away from quality teaching, learning and pastoral care.
We also therefore need to seriously rethink the over use of testing in schools. This Conservative Government’s obsession with primary school SATs tests is letting young people down badly.
It perpetuates an unhelpful focus on ‘rote learning’, which is to learn by memorising and repetition. What we instead need to do is create an education that provides a real measure of children’s creativity, depth of understanding, and ability to work as a team. These are the attributes which will be just as vital (if not more so), for the future careers our young people are preparing for.
Remembering facts and figures just doesn’t cut it. That is why Liberal Democrats would end the unnecessary stress on pupils and teachers by scrapping high-stakes primary school SATs tests.
The true quality of teaching and learning cannot be captured by these narrow forms of assessment and inspection. And the undue focus which school leaders feel that they need to give to preparing for them, means they are worse than useless – they are actually harmful.
Not only do they detract from focusing on other, less ‘measurable’ forms of learning, but in my experience the pressure they put on teachers and pupils alike is directly linked to issues with mental health and wellbeing.
If the Government is serious about tackling the recruitment and retention crisis in schools across the country then they must act urgently, and they must not be afraid of considering radical reforms as part of this. We must demand better for our teachers. Liberal Democrats do because we know they deserve it.
Layla Moran MP is the Education Spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats and a former teacher.