It is your first day as a teacher in a school. Perhaps you are beginning training or it is the start of your teaching career as an NQT. Maybe you were successful in a recent interview. You are full of optimism and anticipation as you step through the door.
You make your way to the staffroom. You organise yourself for the day ahead. After a cup of tea and a few ‘Good mornings’, you have five minutes before morning briefing begins. Just enough time to visit the toilet. You don't know how long it is going to be before you can go again.
You approach one of the teachers who welcomed you when you first arrived. You ask her to direct you to the nearest toilet. She looks at you with a puzzled frown. ‘I'm sorry, I don't know. No one has ever asked me that question before. As far as I know, there aren’t any toilets in the school.’ Taken aback, you wonder if she has misunderstood your question. You tactfully move across the staffroom and ask a male teacher the same question. Again, the same bewildered look: ‘I've been here for 20 years and there has never been any toilets’. As you are working out how to ask, as politely and as sensitively as you can, what teachers and pupils do when nature calls, the headteacher enters the staffroom to begin the morning briefing.
Of course, this scenario could never take place. Health and Safety regulations ensure that toilet facilities are available for both teachers and pupils at all times. A school has to close if there is no running water or the toilets stop working.
In any case, what have toilets to do with teachers' mental health?
Imagine yourself entering the school again and making your way to the staffroom. This time, you ask, ‘Excuse me. Could you tell me who is responsible for staff well-being and mental health in the school?’ Would the answers be the same?
‘I'm sorry, I don't know. No one has ever asked me that question before. As far as I know, there isn't anyone responsible for staff well-being and mental health in the school’, or ‘I've been here for 20 years and there has never been anyone responsible for staff wellbeing and mental health’.
Unfortunately, unlike the fictitious school without toilets, the lack of a staff wellbeing lead – someone to go to when the pressure mounts and who works with the leadership team to reduce workload and stress – is all too common in many of our schools. And yet, the Health and Safety regulations place a duty of care on employers to reduce stress in the workplace. In meeting Health and Safety obligations, physical and biological needs all too often take precedence over mental health needs.
In a recent article for the Insight series in the Times Educational Supplement, Sir Andrew Carter, government advisor and primary headteacher, said:
‘Your staff are 75 per cent of your costs. You must nurture them. The majority of schools will spend more money each year looking after their lavatories than they will looking after their teachers. They will have a caretaker to take care of the building. But is there someone who takes care of your staff? That is down to the head. It's about a culture’.
How long will it be before schools can as easily direct a new member of staff to the mental wellbeing lead as they can to the toilet?
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