The penultimate session of Forum Strategy’s Wellbeing Steering Group took place on 1 July.

The session began with a conversation between colleagues, based around two key questions:

What is going well within your trust in terms of staff wellbeing?

Where are the key challenges, and what are your greatest concerns?

Positives included that staff who had been working in school throughout the pandemic, or had recently returned to school, were generally feeling confident in the safety measures and routines in place, and felt well supported by their trusts. Other positives included that a greater scope for flexibility had emerged for some staff, who have been able to work from home more, and attend meetings remotely. In many cases this has meant time saved commuting, and more time with family – this is a positive which trust leaders expressed a desire to retain in some form.

Ensuring people get a much-deserved break and ‘return’ is managed with care

However, trust leaders expressed concerns in other areas. These included an anticipated ‘crash’ for many staff over the summer break, when the adrenaline fades and the pressures faced over the past few months truly hit home. There was also concern for operational staff, who have faced a great deal of pressure too, but may not be getting the break they need over the summer, and there was a consensus that this should be remembered, and ideally handled by providing some form of break for these staff too. Another concern was raised regarding the wellbeing of shielded staff, who may not have been in work since March; several trust leaders observed that anxiety levels amongst these staff was high, and needed to be handle sensitively – suggestions included the possibility of phased returns, in depth conversations with line managers, and providing a ‘buddy’ system.

All trust leaders acknowledged that stresses from Covid would inevitably have had an impact on many pupils and staff, and that the attempt to return to a new ‘normal’ in September was a daunting prospect, since many staff and pupils will have had negative experiences of lockdown, and may be continuing to face problems as a result of Covid. These may include living in households under severe economic strain, domestic problems, or mental health issues (rates of which have increased significantly in recent months). Balancing the pressure to ensure children “catch up” with a desire to prioritise their mental health and wellbeing needs was also seen to be crucial – and CEOs overwhelmingly agreed that the wellbeing of pupils and staff must be prioritised above all else.

A growth in remote working and greater flexibility?

HR expert Mandy Coalter joined the group to discuss flexible working, and how this could form an integral part of trusts’ wellbeing approaches moving forward. Mandy made the important distinction between having to do work at home while coping in a crisis, and true flexible working – which is a much broader, and a much more empowering experience. Mandy acknowledged that many teachers do not enjoy working from home, since the main purpose of the profession they have chosen is to be in a classroom with children. As a result, there will be many teachers who have had to work from home who will have sorely missed daily interactions with their pupils and colleagues. However, there are some changes which have been brought about by Covid which can be harnessed to create a culture of better flexible working moving forward. These include having more flexibility in terms of start and finish times, planning PPA time in such a way that it can be done from home, and using ‘teams’ (or other online platforms) for meetings. Operational staff who are often situated in an office may wish to start working from home on a much more regular basis.

Mandy is currently working with the DfE, putting together case studies of best practice in trusts across the country regarding flexible working, and these will be published later in the year. The case studies will look at how leaders can create a trust-wide approach which considers how each individual member of staff may (or may not) want to work flexibly, and how to plan timetables to try to accommodate as many of their needs as possible.

A culture of openness to reduce uncertainty

The group then moved into a second discussion, on how to plan to support staff and pupil wellbeing in the months ahead. The importance of open conversations was highlighted, especially in creating a ‘new normal’. Some trust leaders expressed concern that the recent need for external approval from the CEO for many important decisions had left some of their headteachers feeling disempowered, and others becoming too reliant on decision-making from above. Leaders therefore need to see the new term as an opportunity to re-invigorate and refine the cultures within which they are operating, and have sensitive but clear conversations with headteachers and senior leaders which clearly define what decisions are within their remit.

Continuing to grow a ‘culture’ of wellbeing, central to, and permeating throughout each trust, was also seen as crucial in the months ahead. According to the CIPD wellbeing initiatives often fall short of their potential because they stand alone, isolated from every day business. Therefore, to gain real benefit, employee well-being priorities must be integrated throughout an organisation, and embedded in its culture, leadership and people management. Michael Pain asked trust leaders to consider the following questions, “How are you modelling the importance of looking after wellbeing as a leader? What is your board expecting come September? What are you as a CEO expecting? And what are leaders and management across the organisation expecting from staff on return in September? Is wellbeing going to be the priority, or are other things going to be the priority?’ The consensus was that while there is of course a balance to be struck between different priorities, the health and wellbeing of all stakeholders within each trust is what is most important at this point in time.

Staying in tune with your staff and their ‘lived experience’

Strategically, identifying staff concerns and trends was agreed to be of upmost importance. Regular staff surveys, thoughtfully put together, and thoughtfully acted upon, were seen as vital – as leaders need to know where their staff are at, and what support theyneedin order to be well and healthy. Such surveys should also provide feedback to the individual staff member themselves on their wellbeing, since understanding and taking steps to support their own wellbeing is the most effective and empowering way to support individuals to create positive and lasting change.

Finally, Andy Mellor from the Schools Advisory Service (SAS) informed leaders that referrals to SAS’s services were continuing to rise, with counselling requests having doubled in June, compared to May. SAS is offering a number of services to its members to support staff who may be struggling, including its ‘be mindful’ course (where participants have seen a 51% reduction in the symptoms of depression), an online ‘relaxation room’, which takes participants through a range of relaxation activities each Friday evening, and an ‘e-gym’ app, that allows staff to build their own training programmes. Andy also signposted the national wellbeing partnership website, which includes resources from over 30 providers, a wellbeing audit tool designed by Leeds Beckett University, and innovative advice from experts ranging from clinical psychologists to nutrition experts. He also suggested reading his latest blog post ‘Building Back Better’, to understand more about how the education system can be rebuilt post Covid to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of pupils much more effectively.

Feedback to the DfE:

-There is currently a lack of clarity around the role of Ofsted and performance measures next year – gaining certainty on this issue would be very helpful.