Sir Michael: Rottweiler to Puppy on Teacher Stress

Sir Michael Wilshaw appears to be in the process of a David Beckham style turnaround in public perception – going from national villain to cherished hero. Okay so that may be stretching the point but having originally appeared to enjoy being Michael Gove’s Rottweiler we all watched aghast as he turned on his owner(s) and then, despite the attempts to ‘mussel’ him most recently we watched as he started to bark some home truths about academies and grammar schools.


However just when we wondered who he might take a bite out of next Sir Michael seems to have gone all Andrex Puppy having been quoted in the TES:

“That stuff about stress, although I was hugely misquoted there, I probably wouldn’t say now.”

Now I am not sure this means he doesn’t think the same way about stress now as he did then or that he simply shouldn’t have said what he said. However it does signal recognition of the damage and misjudgement of his quotes in 2012 where he effectively characterised Teachers as not knowing what stress was.

Now one could suggest that some of Sir Michael’s quotes were due to him being of a different era yet there are enough studies from the1970s and 1980s to suggest teachers were describing back then very much what they would describe now as factors that create stress. For example a study in the mid 1980s indicated 90% of teachers were reporting aspects of their job as stressful with prime concerns being time, students, finance and feedback from administrators; a list that wouldn’t look out of place 30 years on. Even then the authors (Raschke, et al.) were describing a ‘teacher crisis’ as thousands of teachers were leaving the classroom. So it would seem that teaching has long existed in a crisis and that stress has long been a feature of teaching.


To dig a little deeper we can see that teacher stress can be characterised as the ‘squeeze’ on teachers to the point by which a teacher is ‘unable to meet the demands’ made upon them – resulting in high levels of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

To be more specific stress is located in the interplay of ‘Self-Efficacy beliefs and our locus of control’ – as in can we do what others are expecting us to do with what resources we have. So whilst teacher stress is perhaps part of a continuum in teaching the ‘squeeze’ demands may well be a key variable which change whilst the symptoms may stay the same (albeit the frequency of the squeeze may have changed).

Regardless it would seem that the repeated exposure to increasing challenges of diversification, surveillance, performativity, accountability and continual and rapid structural change may be exposing teachers to new forms of ‘squeeze’ compounded by magnification through social media, blogs, tweets and rapid news exchange.

The financial cost of such stress, anxiety and depression is said to account for the loss of approximately 220,000 days a year at a cost of over £19 million and it would be interesting to explore what £19 million of preventative strategies would look like and achieve not least at an individual wellbeing level?

Examples of preventative approaches are however often thin on the ground or short-lived and there would seem few examples in England from the last 30 years of any sustained effort to address the stress of teaching. Most recently (19th October 2016) the government   select committee inquiry into the supply of teachers did hear about plans in Nottingham to cap teacher workload to 2 hours an evening – which I am assuming this means they are acknowledging teacher stress. If so this is interesting as the government’s own response to the workload challenge didn’t acknowledge teacher stress within their report? Equally whilst I am sure Nottingham’s plans are well intended the potential unintended consequences in reducing teacher autonomy and agency, by defining the amount of time, are recognized as key factors in increasing stress which shouldn’t be underestimated. So whilst tinkering with workload is a start this may not be the answer.

So I am glad that Sir Michael has acknowledged that he now recognises the sensitivities that surround teacher stress. However teacher stress, emotion, resilience, and wellbeing are ultimately complex topics and those of us who prepare or work with teachers have to (as we are doing at The University of Manchester) look further as to how we select, prepare and support teachers for what should be both a demanding but positive and sustainable career. This isn’t driven purely by expediency related to retention, albeit this is important, however it has to be driven by authentically enabling happy, healthy teachers to engage with children in positive ways.

20-20 Vision Restored for Initial Teacher Education?

At times, the last six years have often felt like a non-stop assault for some of us involved in Initial Teacher Education. It was not only an assault in relation to rapid policy change but also an onslaught in relation to the perpetuation of myths and the misuse of notional evidence against teacher educators. As such reform after reform further sought to marginalise teacher educators whilst labelling as the ‘blob’ and ‘enemies of promise’ were a particular low point.

Yet this was all at odds with a sector that I knew very well, that had consistently delivered on the entire government key targets and which had produced the ‘best generation of new teachers’. Yet despite having many world-class universities (most recently 17 out of the worlds top 200) involved in ITE the message was clear that the government was ‘moving teacher training away from university departments and into our best schools’.

The methods for disrupting teacher education was to be through creating a marketplace, rapidly establishing alternative providers to fight it out, increasing uncertainty in future planning and by destabilising teacher education departments by gradually reducing their allocations. Equally each year the annual circus of allocations would be accompanied by new ways of forcing providers to behave, often in new and bizarre ways and most notably last year’s fiasco of recruitment controls. Added to all the above we had the introduction of £9000 fees, differential bursaries, several new inspection frameworks, attacks by the Chief Inspector of schools and the lack of any clear coordination by NCTL.

And then something happened last week that restored some hope for the future when the reintroduction of three-year allocations was announced. Even though the 2016 white paper had signalled the intention to create some stability, albeit as part of the ill thought through Centres of Excellence, it still came as surprise and a relief that finally some semblance of rationality had prevailed. Finally, finally, finally the opportunity to plan ahead had been restored!

Now whilst 3-year allocations used to be the norm this is simply not reverting back to the past. It is however firmly putting the brake on the levers that have constantly been used to try to manipulate a market and to force the adoption of particular behaviours. Unfortunately the 3-year allocation is not yet for all providers and whilst justification for this is not yet clear there really should be an attempt to move to a situation where the majority of providers are equally given the opportunity to plan ahead.


So what does this all mean? Well to be in a position with an allocation up until 2020 means that we as a sector should now move towards a vision of developing a world-class teacher education system driven by quality and not ideological and unsustainable ill conceived whims. We should now have the opportunity to discuss and consider how best to achieve what we want to achieve and how best to enable universities and schools to work together to ensure every new teacher is both educated and trained for teaching in multiple contexts in a sustainable way.

At last the future looks bright but taking a moment to reflect two of the saddest features of the last six-year now spring to mind. Firstly is the way the government positioned some schools, often in long established partnerships, against universities and the way some schools saw this as an opportunity. We all know the best way forward for teacher education is through genuine authentic partnerships built on trust and respect for each other’s strengths. Future reform should not be conceived as schools or universities taking the lead – it is about working towards common aims of providing learners with the very best possible teachers.

Secondly the way some universities sold out and sold cheap (literally and metaphorically), low quality provision has revealed an unpleasant side of teacher education. I have often said that Michael Gove wasn’t able to dismantle teacher education, he was only able to provide the tools for the sector to dismantle itself and it would seem some providers tried their best! Innovation is not a plausible excuse for ad hoc low quality provision which simply undermines the sector.

Finally whilst I am being cautious in not reading too much into the reintroduction of some stability into the sector I am hoping that this will now offer a fresh opportunity for reconceiving a 2020 vision for initial teacher education!