Improving teachers’ health and wellbeing could raise pupil attainment “more readily” than tackling complex factors such as social class, research has suggested.
Launched on Monday (September 8), a preliminary paper detailing research commissioned by the Teacher Support Network (TSN) and carried out by Lancaster University’s Work Foundation is calling for a full-scale investigation into the causal links between healthy teachers and student outcomes.
Sponsorship is being sought for the work, which will also seek to establish practical methods that schools can implement to promote teachers’ health. The government has also been urged to take note of the study’s early findings and to “focus on policies which address the stresses that teachers already face”.
The paper, Healthy Teachers, Higher Marks?, reports the findings of a review of existing evidence and suggests that healthy teachers who are “both mentally and physically fit” produce better exam results in their students.
Its findings have been backed by Dame Carol Black, principal of Newnham College at the University of Cambridge, and an advisor on health and wellbeing to the Department of Health.
The paper cites 1992 research showing a “significant link” between job satisfaction and performance” and 2006 research reporting that a teacher’s effectiveness is determined by their “resilience, work/life balance, commitment and sense of wellbeing”.
Discussing the 2006 research, the paper states: “(Their) report also provided some evidence to suggest that teachers working in challenging socio-economic contexts are more likely to experience greater challenges to their health and wellbeing and by consequence, their resilience, and this leads to risk for long-term teacher effectiveness.”
One of the most notable pieces of evidence is 2007 research by Professor Rob Briner and Dr Chris Dewberry from the Department of Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London, which cited a “significant positive relationship” between staff wellbeing and key stage 2 SAT outcomes.
Their research also surveyed 24,200 staff in 246 primary and 182 secondary schools about wellbeing, including whether the staff felt valued/cared for, overloaded, and whether they enjoyed their work and found it stimulating. Its findings suggest a “two-way” relationship between students’ results and teachers’ wellbeing.
Elsewhere, a 2013 report by Welsh inspectorate Estyn is also cited after it found that the use of supply teachers to cover for absent teachers can have a negative impact on student outcomes.
The TSN paper also quotes examples from healthcare, where absences due to sickness have been shown to have a negative impact on patient outcomes. One leading review of the NHS showed that “burnt-out” staff were more likely to make errors and be less attentive to patients and that healthier staff had better patient outcomes.
Dr Zofia Bajorek, lead researcher at the Work Foundation, said: “Our report concludes that when teachers have reduced health and wellbeing and job satisfaction, this can have a trickle-down effect on student performance.
“With schools and teachers under pressure to do and achieve more with less, it is vital that teacher health and wellbeing becomes of central concern to reduce any implications for student performance. The government must focus on policies which address the stresses that teachers already face.”
However, none of the research cited by the TSN paper has shown a causal relationship, which is why the charity is now keen to carry out its own research. The report states: “Even though a number of studies have provided evidence that support the widespread expectation, each had methodological limitations. Consequently, there remains a need for further research to be conducted examining whether a causal relationship between teacher wellbeing and student outcomes exists.”
Dame Carol, who spoke at the launch of the paper this week, conducted a review of Britain’s workforce in 2008 which calculated that improving the health of all staff across all sectors could save the government £60 billion.
She said: “We know from research that whatever you are producing, whether that is machinery or healthcare, your product depends on the people who work for you.
“The product in education is the performance and education of children, therefore having your teachers healthy and well, both mentally and physically, is crucial. Although there is some research in this area, we need to do more.”
Julian Stanley, TSN chief executive, added: “We hear too often from teachers who are stressed, constantly sick, complain of chronic exhaustion, and with low morale.
“Many are too scared to take time off to recover from common colds in fear of reprimands from senior leaders and leaving already over-worked colleagues to cover their classes. For those of us who work in schools, it seems blindingly obvious that pupils taught by teachers who are stressed and frequently sick will perform less well than those who aren’t.
“Our report shows that more research is needed to understand this relationship. We believe this could hold the key to educational improvements and will force the government to prioritise teachers’ health and wellbeing.”
The TSN offers a 24/7 support line, telephone counselling and wider advice to education staff. For details, or to download the research paper, visit www.teachersupport.info