How do you get ready to start a new school year? Social media is full of teachers sharing photos of stationery and new classroom displays, ideas for resources or wisdom distilled from summer reading. Even now that I no longer work in a school, September still feels like an exciting new beginning, full of possibility. It can also be a little daunting: if you’re an early career teacher just setting up your first classroom, returning to school after some time away, or moving to a new year group or a new school, you may wonder what lies ahead and how well you’ll cope.
Our pupils face the same emotions – new teachers, subjects, schools. Like us, their past experiences colour whether they lean towards excitement or anxiety. Covid experiences will still affect many. A four-year-old starting in reception will have been stuck indoors for a large part of their first few years, with toddler groups, childcare and even playgrounds out of bounds, while any adults they met outside their own families were wearing face-masks across half their faces. Those starting to study for GCSEs will have missed out on much of the opportunity to try out new subjects before they had to choose their options. Is it any wonder that we go into September with increasing mental health problems, with the likelihood that one in six 7-16 year olds has a probable mental health disorder? Or with pupil absence rates spiralling out of control, and around one in five pupils classed as persistently absent?
A new school year feels like an opportunity for optimism, a time to rebuild links with the community, to support pupils with their mental health. For World Mental Health Day in October, we will be supporting ITV’s Britain Get Talking and YoungMinds #HelloYellow to help children across the country open up. They are looking for schools and teachers all over the UK who would like to take part in a homework task like no other, designed to help children talk about the hardest subjects on their minds with their parents and carers. You can find more information here.
But I know that we can’t solve these problems on our own. This year we will see politicians building their visions for our society as we head towards a general election, and I will continue to press them for commitments to support children and families.
But we also need support for our profession. While the pay dispute has been resolved for now, underlying issues of workload and funding have not gone away. The government’s strategies for reducing workload, increasing flexible working and improving wellbeing don’t seem to be working quickly enough. As staff vacancies continue to rise, and fewer people choose to train as teachers, perhaps we need to look more deeply into the problems and look for more fundamental solutions to keep teachers in schools. In a year which will see a new Chief Inspector for England’s schools, it is right that we continue to press for changes to the inspection process which currently cause so much unnecessary stress for leaders and teachers. But I believe that a focus on professional development and building professional communities is key to teacher retention.
I am proud of our role as the professional community for teachers, leaders and support staff. The Chartered College will continue to support you in building your professional knowledge, and to celebrate your commitment to children and young people. In a year that will see many political promises, we will be looking at politicians’ commitment to you. We want to see their plans to keep you in your jobs, and to keep experienced teachers in classrooms. We want to see plans for professional development and career pathways, including Chartered Status. And I want to hear how a new government will involve your expertise as they grapple with the problems and begin to design solutions to the problems you face every day.
Professor Dame Alison Peacock