Wellbeing Matters. An Exclusive Interview with Dr Sue Roffey

Sue Roffey 2014

We talked to Sue Roffey, and she shared her views on whole school wellbeing, #teacher5aday and much more… 

SW Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. You have recently returned to the UK after working in Australia. How would you compare the schools staff wellbeing culture in the two countries?

SR School and student wellbeing is much more on the agenda in Australia than it is here – and on one level this is growing. The previous labour government initiated a scoping study on approaches to student wellbeing  (2008) in which I was involved. In response to concern about rates of depression and suicide they also started kidsmatter (primary) and mindmatters (secondary) mental health promotion in schools. Positive education is also now embedded in many of the more privileged schools who are of course influential in determining the zeitgeist.  Catholic education has followed through their ‘whole–child’ mantra with whole school wellbeing. In Melbourne all catholic schools have a wellbeing co-ordinator as a senior member of staff and the catholic office collaborates with Melbourne University who offer a masters in school wellbeing.  All states and territories have a wellbeing framework.  Everyone involved with any of this realises that you cannot have student wellbeing unless you also address teacher wellbeing. However, there is now a liberal (read conservative) government who are developing a teach to test culture and the staffmatters website (originally attached to mindmatters)  is no longer there. The UK has gone backwards on these issues in the last decade and Australia is at risk of going the same way.  It is all linked to political ideology rather than evidence based practice on what is in the best interests of children, their futures or their teachers.

SW In a recent blog post, you said “what is happening here (in England) in education is depressing. Our kids and teachers need a massive movement to put wellbeing back on the agenda.” What factors do you think have led to this situation?

SR When I left the UK  in 1999 we had a government who were interested in equality, social mobility, social and emotional learning (SEAL) and more diverse aspects of education.  Behaviour in school was improving and I imagine that this was also true of pupil engagement.  We now have a culture where the curriculum has been narrowed and pedagogy increasingly dictated from above.  This does not give children with diverse abilities an opportunity to develop their strengths nor does it give teachers agency.  I appreciate that we need to ensure children are making progress but the accountability culture is destroying motivation – and therefore diverse achievement.  Gove’s disrespect for the teaching profession did not help, nor does the ideology that education is primarily for economic progress.  There seems to be no alternative conversation about the value to society of people who do not necessarily go to university and become professionals, the undermining of the creative arts for instance.  The vast body of research evidence on effective education is being ignored (now also in Australia) , the rising rates of poverty impact on learning, mental health and behaviour and there is no flexibility for kids who do not conform – the research talks about the importance of connectedness for resilience and our most vulnerable kids are being marginalised.  (See the latest issue of Educational and Child Psychology 33(1) on mental health and behaviour – here is the link to my article summarising some of this.

SW The Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts a funding cut of 7% per secondary school pupil by 2020.  How do you see the situation in schools with regard to staff wellbeing over the next five to ten years, given their likely financial position?

SR This situation is not good and indicative of the constant attack on state education but not everything is dependent on finance. There are two ways to support staff wellbeing.  One is what teachers can do for themselves – #teacher5aday is great. This needs to include a range of cognitive strategies such as keeping things in perspective and not trying to be perfect – and the other is environmental – what we can do for each other – social, emotional, practical and psychological support.  I am hoping that parents may begin to make louder noises about the lack of investment in schools and teachers and the teach to test culture –this is  beginning to happen. 

SW What would be your advice to a School Leader looking to support staff wellbeing in their school?

SR Teachers who feel they are just cogs in an ever faster spinning wheel will burn out and leave.  Those who cannot care for and educate young people in the way they want to also become very dispirited.  It is critical that headteachers address teacher wellbeing.  They need to acknowledge what teachers do – both everyday commitment and all the extra things that are often taken for granted.  Then give staff a voice so everyone feels they are in this together.   We need school leaders who have a vision for the wellbeing of the whole child and every child, share this vision with their staff and ask them for ideas about how the school can move forward with this agenda,   one of the things that it is possible for headteachers to do is to change the conversation.  The more people talk about test results rather than children’s wellbeing the more stressed everyone will be.  Another conversation is about time – school leaders might work with staff to decide on what they need to do to the best of their ability and where they might cut corners.  Not everyone can do everything to the best of their ability and stay sane.  We need courage to prioritise kids and teachers rather than buy into the government agenda wholesale.  I have just written a blog for the RSA on this

SW What contribution do you see Social Media making to school staff wellbeing?

SR I set up Wellbeing Australia in 2005 and we now have several thousand people signed up and about 4, 500 visitors a month to the website; on average we have 300 unique (new) visitors a day.  We put up research, relevant articles and links to good practice and YouTube clips.  One area is teacher wellbeing.  I think social media gives an excellent opportunity to easily engage many people – unfortunately we often preach to the converted and social media engagement takes valuable time.  But it’s worth doing.  Conversations can change culture and social media is one form of conversation.  Look how teacher5aday is expanding.

SW Can you tell us something about your involvement with the Positive Schools Conference? It looks like an exciting line up!

SR I have just heard that the Positive Schools Conference in Cambridge has been cancelled because of low registrations.  This is devastating news – our kids, schools and teachers needed this!   I think we will run our two workshops on 6th (strengths based relationships) and 9th (SEL for relationships, resilience and responsibility) — we are making a special offer for new teachers who can bring a friend for free!   I would be happy to do another session on teacher wellbeing if there was enough interest and someone provides a venue.  I am also wondering whether we can get enough firm interest to persuade the organisers to run the conference next year.  It has been sold out in four cities across Australia.


Sue is an author, academic , psychologist and Director of Wellbeing Australia. You can follow her on twitter or contact her via her website sueroffey.com


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