Report into impact of the Covid pandemic on North East schools reveals worrying extent of effects on wellbeing of staff and students
A report into student and staff wellbeing has revealed the extent of the detrimental impact the Covid pandemic has had on the mental and physical health of school communities across the North East.
The report, which was compiled from the surveyed response of over 200 schools across the region’s 12 Local Authorities, revealed more than half (52 per cent) of schools reported a wellbeing score of three out of five on a scale in which five constitutes very good and one very poor.
Almost one in five schools reported a score of below three, indicating staff wellbeing as poor or very poor. Worryingly, around half of those schools which completed the survey said staff wellbeing was worse or much worse now compared to the end of the summer term.
The most common reasons cited in the report as impacting on people’s welfare was continued Covid related disruption (75 per cent), Ofsted pressures (70 per cent), workload related to ‘catch-up’ (60 per cent), and just under 40 per cent highlighted Covid-related anxieties.
The report also identified that for students who felt their wellbeing had deteriorated, the main factor was time spent out of school due to isolation, lockdowns and the impact of Covid, with two thirds reporting this as having a negative impact. A further 53 per cent of schools said ‘catch-up’ expectations are also having an impact on student wellbeing.
The report came as no surprise to Sunderland City Council’s portfolio holder for education, Cllr Louise Farthing, who said: “Like all Public Services, schools have been under immense pressure and there has been little let-up for a long period of time. Throughout the pandemic schools stayed open for key worker children meaning teachers were often having to prepare both in-school and virtual lessons.
"The vaccination programme of Sunderland pupils has also not gone particularly well and then we now have a new variant which we don’t yet know the outcome of. This is added to the fact there is already a high level of deprivation in the North east which means the pandemic has had an even greater impact.
"Despite all this, schools are still expected to achieve results and this all puts a level of pressure on schools which inevitably leads to a lack of wellbeing.”
One of the key issues identified in the report as impacting on both student and staff wellbeing has been high levels of staff absence due to either contracting Covid or having to isolate.
Just over half of the schools surveyed had staffing levels below 90 per cent, which school leaders said had “a significant impact on how operational schools can be”.
More than three quarters of schools (77.5 per cent) reported pupil attendance levels as being below where they would be expected to be at this stage of the academic year.
Cllr Farthing added: “My understanding is that there has in particular been a lot of stress created by staff absence in secondary schools. With Covid restrictions, it is difficult to get supply staff in which may lead to staff having to cover for absent colleagues which adds to the pressure and workload.”
The impacts of the pandemic on staff and student welfare have also been acknowledged by South Tyneside Council who have implemented measures to support wellbeing.
A Council spokeswoman said: "Our schools have been at the forefront of dealing with the challenges of the pandemic.
"Our school staff have gone above and beyond during this difficult time to support students - even, as this report shows, at the expense of their own mental health and wellbeing.
"The role played by our school staff throughout this pandemic has been invaluable - not only for the wellbeing of our young people but also in enabling key workers to continue to go to work. We will continue to provide ongoing support to our family of schools, including support with wellbeing provided by the Council's Healthy Minds team.
"It is also worth noting that many of our schools have signed up to the Better Health at Work initiative which provides advice and support to help our school staff take care of their wellbeing."
Other key outcomes of the report revealed 79.5 per cent of the region’s schools felt the Government’s catch-up support package was insufficient with school leaders highlighting a “lack of understanding of the challenges, needs, and resources schools have” and a “shortage of quality tutors” – one of the key components of the Government’s education recovery package.
Cllr Farthing said: “The Governments own catch-up tsar, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned over a lack of credible funding.”
On the issue of Covid anxieties, Cllr Farthing added: “A lot of people have concerns - particularly with this new variant – about the impact at work and on their own families. The Government has always known about the likelihood of a new variant but don’t seem to have proper plans in place.
"Everything always seems like such a mad rush at the end.”
The outcomes of the report have also come as no surprise to the teaching union the NASUWT.
National Executive Member for North East England, John Hall, said: “The outcomes of this report would certainly support our own findings and concerns. The pandemic has put a huge amount of pressure on our region’s schools and created a workload that can’t be sustained. This causes wellbeing issues that result in staff going off sick or being in-school suffering mental health problems.
"There are understandable anxieties in schools over Covid transmission. We believe measures were lifted too quickly and it has always been our advice for our members to continue to wear masks in school.
"While there is an issue with funding the recovery package, there also needs to be a discussion on the way forward between the Government and the unions.”
The report was compiled by Schools North East, a collaborative school led network established in 2007 by the region’s then headteachers.