A range of factors have made FE a less happy place over the past decade. There are strategies we need to adopt to change that, writes Kirsti Lord

Staff are the backbone of further education colleges and this week’s EPI report on the wellbeing of the school workforce made for sobering reading. Despite the average teacher being happier and more satisfied with life than the average graduate, within education as a whole FE lecturers are the lowest-scoring group on the happiness scale and the second highest-scoring group on the anxiety scale. This deserves our attention. The health and wellbeing of staff in colleges is a critical issue.

We know from previous surveys and research that many seasoned lecturers have considered walking away from the profession, with many citing heavy workloads, stress and low pay as factors. Teachers still overwhelmingly enjoy teaching but the decline in wellbeing and rising anxiety must be understood within the broader context of what has happened to the sector over the past decade.

In many colleges, budget cuts have resulted in efficiencies in management structures, less opportunity to progress and fewer clear pathways through organisations. Reduced professional development budgets have also resulted in staff feeling less invested in and less able to build their CV.

Whereas ten years ago it was common for each department to have a pot of hours to use to reduce timetables to enable staff to undertake projects, develop new provision, take on departmental responsibilities or carry out internal verification, such remission is now a thing of the past in most colleges. Yet these duties are still expected on top of a full timetable, which both increases the pressure and devalues the work.

We need a culture that builds optimism

Regulation and scrutiny have increased too, and staff can feel caught in a cycle that requires them to constantly prepare for the next observation, inspection or audit. Naturally, it makes them cautious, over-constrained and very risk-averse, which in turn limits opportunities to innovate.

With rising costs, ten years of cuts, pay freezes and losing staff, the capital and resourcing of FE has taken the biggest hit in the education sector. While the EPI report does not have enough data to make causal links between the two (It didn’t set out to find one), the neglect of colleges has certainly played a role in lowering wellbeing levels among staff.

Nevertheless, we know colleges must model positive behaviours, be safe and secure places of work and study for all who work, study and train in them. That’s why during last year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, the Association of Colleges officially launched the Mental Health & Wellbeing Charter.

Colleges need to be bold about their commitment to staff and student wellbeing. The charter gives them the chance to publicly state their commitment to that, to provide relevant information and training, and to create an inclusive college ethos which is respectful of those with mental ill health. 

Staff in colleges across the country are called on daily to be motivators, leaders and experts in their field. A culture that builds optimism, talks more about the issues staff are facing and seeks to understand them will ensure leaders are able to support their needs in a more effective way.

As we start the new decade, it seems timely to remind those colleges who have not yet signed up to the Mental Health Charter that it stands as a positive affirmation of their commitment to staff welfare. So much of the ‘happy balance’ college leaders strive to create happens on an individual, team and organisational level, and almost all successful wellbeing initiatives are results of cultural shifts, rather than management tweaks or movement.

One thing is clear, staff wellbeing in further education must improve. A political and financial reversal of the decade of neglect offers hope of alleviating the organisational factors aggravating the situation, but work must begin closer to home to ensure staff and lecturers feel valued, supported and motivated. Anything else is a disservice to their dedication and commitment to making colleges the amazing places they truly are.