LONDON (Guardian) --
Headteachers are breaking down in tears, suffering migraines and even passing out, with six in 10 admitting they have considered changing jobs in the past year because of increased level of stress.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) union says more school leaders than ever before are considering leaving the profession, and “fewer and fewer” middle leaders are aspiring to take on the job because they see how punishing it is. They are balloting members on strike action, with a deadline of January 11, but a spokesperson said school closures would remain a “last resort”.
Scottish teachers took strike action last month and have more days of action planned in the next few weeks.
Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, told the Observer: “The anger and even despair we are hearing from our members right now is unprecedented. School leaders are telling me they cannot continue to run their schools in the current circumstances.”
An annual survey of wellbeing of school staff in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, published before Christmas by the charity Education Support, found stress had reached epidemic proportions among heads, with 87% of senior leaders saying they had experienced poor mental health as a result of their work, and 58% saying they had actively sought to change or leave their jobs in the past year.
The head of a state school in Cumbria shared the resignation letter she sent recently to her board of governors with the Observer. “The last two and a half years have been the toughest I have ever known,” the letter begins. “The experience has almost broken me, and the situation shows no signs of improving.”
She wrote that she is “exhausted by the continued battles” as a result of 10 years of cuts to school funding and the “relentless reduction” of other public services supposed to be helping children and their families.
Her letter ends: “I no longer want to work for a government that is so out of touch with reality and treats my profession and our children with such contempt.”
Headteacher Catherine Barker (not her real name) had to pull over to be sick in the road when she was driving her son to university last term. The pressure of running a primary school with a chronic shortage of money was causing her blood pressure to rise, and most days she was waking up with a migraine.
Barker’s school in the Fenlands has huge energy bills she has no idea how to pay. She holds car boot sales to buy phonics reading books, but feels guilty because “we are raising money from families who are really poor themselves”.
The windows in one of the classrooms shake, and the boiler should have been replaced two years ago. Despite having to cover some lessons herself, she is trying to work out which staff to make redundant to deal with the deficit.
“A lot of our parents are struggling, and they are asking why we aren’t helping them more with food like we did in the pandemic, but we just can’t,” she says. “The food parcels we give out are costing us more. I don’t know if we can afford to keep offering free breakfasts to kids who come in hungry.”
Barker describes herself as a passionate headteacher, and her school was rated “good” in a recent Ofsted inspection. But she has handed in her resignation because she can no longer handle the stress. She has taken a pay cut and a job as a teacher at a school nearer her home.
Although she will no longer shoulder the responsibility, she is under no illusions that her next school will be different.
“I’m going to a school with the same social issues and financial pressures,” Barker says. “They had Ofsted this spring, and the head collapsed in front of the inspector because she was so stressed she hadn’t slept or eaten.”
Brian Walton, headteacher at Brookside Academy in Street, Somerset, says running a school should be “the best job in the world”, but he plans to resign this year because he thinks “the whole system is broken”. “I’ve been a headteacher for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says.
Walton’s school, a large primary academy with a special school attached, is full, and he is struggling with a serious shortage of support staff and teachers.