Precarious Employment, Supply Teaching and Mental Health

Nearly 15% of the Welsh teaching workforce in Wales work in schools as ‘casual workers’ in precarious employment.  What is the impact of precarious employment on the mental health of these supply teachers?  And what further ‘knock on’ effects does precarious employment have on the school and its children?

I searched via my university’s academic library and easily found several articles that linked mental health problems with precarious employment.  I have cut a few quotes from 9 studies and put the excerpts and article references in the PDF document below.

School children learn emotional self-regulation skills in the classroom in the presence of a healthy, emotionally self-regulated adult.   If a member of staff is dysregulated and stressed-out through the demands of the role and the anxieties caused by precarious employment this makes the classroom an unhealthy place to be.

School children need consistent care from healthy teaching staff to create a secure base for learning.  Low paid teaching staff employed on a casual basis in conditions of precarious employment do not themselves have a secure base… therefore they are not in a position to offer it to learners.   It seems to be so obvious, but it is worth stating that we need joined up thinking from the Welsh Assembly.    In the National Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee’s Mind over Matter reportit was argued a ‘step change’ was needed in the provision of emotional and mental health support for young people.   An educational system in Wales that employs an increasing number of teaching staff in precarious employment undermines that vision for the future.

Comments appreciated.  



Considering the Work of a Supply Teacher

Whilst researching attachment theory from the perspective of the supply teacher recently, I made some calculations on the number of pupils cared for by either a permanent teacher or supply teacher.  

A typical primary school teacher in Wales will care for around  30 pupils over the period of an academic year.  A casual supply teacher will care for five times that many pupils in a week.  And in a month, twenty times the number of pupils.  

In a secondary school, I made some calculations looking at previous timetables where I’ve worked at a secondary school for a term or more and covered a permanently contracted member of staff’s timetable. With an average class size at 25 pupils per class,  I calculate that a secondary school teacher with a full timetable will care for approximately 300 pupils in a week.    A secondary supply teacher working on casual basis, for example doing general cover, working at schools with a 6 lesson day and a registration group to take, will care for approximately 900 pupils in a week, or 3600 in a month.  This is based on a timetable doing general cover work, with no ‘PPA’ or other lesson breaks, where every lesson is different.  

These are, of course, the upper range of estimates.  But even if the secondary supply teacher taught every class twice, it would still mean that the supply teacher cared for 1800 pupils in a month.  And if the primary school supply teacher taught every class twice in a month, it would mean they still cared for ten times the number of pupils as the permanent teacher.

Given the emotional labour involved in teaching, what are the implications for the health of the supply teacher dealing with such a volume of relationships?    

For children to succeed in schools they need consistent care from people they are familiar with, therefore what are the implications for the quality of learning received by the school children when their supply teacher (a) may know very little about them because they are one pupil amongst the many they will meet that month,  (b) is probably exhausted and stressed by the demands placed on them as a supply, (c) likely to be demoralised by the low pay they receive for their professional work?

And for me, this is the six million dollar question, is the role of Supply Teacher and Teacher essentially two different professional roles?   Initial Teacher Training programmes in Wales prepare teachers only for the latter, but the reality is that 15% of the 35,000 registered teachers in Wales work as supply teachers.  Also, some of these supply teacher will never become permanently contracted teachers in their professional lifetime.

And finally… mixed messages from the Welsh Assembly … 

In the National Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee’s Mind over Matter reportit was argued a ‘step change’ was needed in the provision of emotional and mental health support for young people.  Would it not be a step change to work towards an educational system in Wales where consistent care of pupils and staff was a central ethos?   That’s a very basic but excellent starting point.

Reflections on Mindfulness Course by a Teacher

I wrote the following blog reflection three years ago on my experiences completing the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course at Cardiff Buddhist Centre.  It was posted as a PDF file available for download here.   I am re-publishing it today in whole so that it can be tagged for easier retrieval via searches etc.

I  have noticed that since completing this course, many more mindfulness courses are being made available to school teachers and school children.  For example,  recently in Wales the NEU teaching union is offering an 8 week mindfulness course to teachers.  Well done NEU and many other organisations.

Reflective account on 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course) undertaken by a school teacher

I recently finished an eight week Mindfulness Course in Cardiff facilitated by Vishvapani Blomfield.    In this blog I aim to reflect on the experience, consider what I have learned and how I could use this learning in my personal and professional life.

The course cost £200 and sessions lasted two hours per evening.  There were twelve participants.  We were given a course handbook with structured exercises and explanations free of psychological jargon, and templates to reflect on progress.  Although based at Cardiff Buddhist Centre,  this was a purely secular course.  It was based on the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course developed in Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s pioneering work at the University of Massachusett’s Medical Centre in the 1970s.     Kabat-Zinn (1994) gives the definition that “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”

Why take a mindfulness course ?

I work as a school supply teacher and wanted to develop a practice as a means of reducing my stress levels.  My brain is neuroplastic. In plain English, that means my brain is malleable and can be rewired.  I want to rewire it using mindfulness as a means to make it less prone to stress, to make it more resilient.

I wanted to learn mindfulness practice with an experienced practitioner having read much on the subject and experimented with mindfulness practice over the years.   From the course I hoped to establish a mindfulness practice embedded in my personal and professional life.

My first insight into the workings of the mind came from reading Duane Elgin’s book ‘Voluntary Simplicity’ in 1986.   In the Chapter entitled ‘Living More Voluntarily’ Elgin writes about the tendency of our mind to “run on automatic”.  The roots of Elgin’s thinking were in Buddhist thought.

Fast-forward another twenty years and I stumbled upon a book called ‘On Becoming an Artist’ by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer.    In this book I was introduced to principles of mindfulness applied to creative life and it was a revelation.   From this point onwards, I read many books on the subject and attended a few short meditation sessions and a workshop in 2009 and 2010.


The Course

On the course I learned many practical mindfulness techniques focusing on  mindfulness of breath and movement.    The body scan technique was particularly useful in grounding oneself and connecting with feelings and thoughts in a mindful way.

Each week course participants were given various exercises to practice as homework and as the course progressed more emphasis was given on sitting formally in meditation, and developing this practice.

Sessions usually comprised a variety of sitting practices and group discussion.  I found the group support invaluable in the learning process.  It is a challenge to meet twelve other complete strangers in a city and sit down in mindfulness practice with them, but in sharing personal insights and perspectives on mindfulness over the eight weeks we journeyed together and travelled much farther.

Deeper Learning

One of the most profound effects of the course has been to enable me to  slow down, noticing and appreciating more of the present moment wherever possible.   I realise how much my perception is dulled by ‘running on automatic’ (to borrow Elgin’s phrase above) and how rich and variegated life is in every, single moment.

I maintain a daily practice and whenever possible sit for around forty five minutes per day, usually in the morning.   This is not mindfulness though, it is a mindfulness practice.   Mindfulness is something I try to bring to the whole of my life, from washing the dishes to teaching classrooms of pupils in school.   Every moment is a mindfulness practice as every moment can touch my heart.

As a supply teacher,  I have noticed a greater sense of well-being in myself and contentment in my work since doing this course.  Mindfulness is a tool that helps me put all the ups and downs and challenges of supply teaching into a healthy perspective.    I would recommend this course to any fellow teacher looking to develop their practice.

How could I use mindfulness in future ?

The course ended with the advice that you should ‘weave your parachute every day’.  Rather than wait until a crisis develops, or stress levels become out of hand, it is better to practice small doses of mindfulness every day so that you are resilient.  Thus I intend to develop this as a lifelong practice.  This is not a fad.

I intend to share my mindfulness practice with others in my profession, so for example, I have set up a Mindfulness Network on the Hwb+ VLE (login required) available to every school teacher in Wales.   At a future date, I intend to train as a mindfulness schools practitioner, via a project such as the Mindfulness in Schools Project.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Vishvapani Blomfield for facilitating this course with such honesty, patience and humour and Cardiff Buddhist Centre for generously hosting the training.   



Who’s teaching my child today?

A Press Release from the National Education Union yesterday highlighted the scale of private teaching agency exploitation in Wales.

Here’s the Press Release from NEU’s Neil Foden :

A recent Freedom of Information Request to local authorities by NEU Cymru has shown that almost £114 million has been spent on staff from private supply teacher agencies in the three academic years to August 2018.

All authorities bar one (Denbighshire) responded to the request. The figures showed:

  • £113,948,515 was spent on agency supply staff in the above period;
  • Two authorities, Neath Port Talbot and Newport, won’t payroll supply teachers directly, forcing schools to go to agencies. In Wrexham, supply teachers can only be paid directly in certain circumstances;
  • Eight authorities give no guidance to schools on the employment and payment of supply teachers.

NEU National Executive Member, Neil Foden, said:

“The sum spent on private agencies is a national scandal, compounded by the fact that some local authorities effectively force their schools to use agencies because they won’t payroll supply teachers themselves.

“When supply teachers are often forced to work for much less pay than then they would receive if they were on a contract in a school, it’s little wonder that schools report increasing shortages of supply teachers. I have come across cases where Headteachers of small rural primaries have stopped going to meetings and courses because there are no supply teachers available to cover their absence.

“The Welsh Government is investing significantly in professional development for teachers but this exciting agenda will fall flat if schools can’t release them because no suitable cover is available.

“We call on all local authorities to ensure that payroll arrangements are in place for schools to be able to engage their own supply teachers, paid at the appropriate daily rate.

“Before long too many parents will be asking: “who’s teaching my child today?” They won’t like the answer.”


Mindfulness Courses in South Wales

Mindfulness is a very useful practice and skill to have as a teacher.  I’ve compiled a list of various courses running from January 2019 and suitable for teachers in South Wales.   Some of the courses are free, some delivered in Cardiff, Swansea, various locations in the South Wales Valleys, and some are delivered online via videoconferencing.

  • 8 Week MBSR Mindfulness courses, mornings or evenings, via Mindfulness in Action.  Starting : 7th February 2019.  Location : held at Cardiff Buddhist Centre (though this is a secular course) . Further details here.  I took this course a few years ago and I was very impressed with the course and it has deeply influenced my approach to teaching.   I wrote a reflective review of this course.  I was so impressed with the positive impact of this course, I trained as a mindfulness in schools practitioner able to deliver mindfulness courses in both primary and secondary schools.
    Place:        Insole Court, Llandaff, Cardiff, CF5  2LF
    Trainer:    Vicki Worsley
    Dates:        8 Wednesday evening sessions: 23 Jan – 3 April 2019, (no sessions: 20 Feb, 27 Feb and 20 March), plus one full day, Sat 30 March (10.00-4.00pm)
    Times:        7:00-9:00pm (course length 22 hours)
    Fee:            £180 early bird (by 23 Dec), £200 full fee
  • FREE 6 week Mindfulness course organised by Valleys Steps.   Courses delivered in Cynon Valley, Rhondda Valley, Taff Ely and Merthyr areas.  Background information on the course here.   Course listings here.
  • An innovative ONLINE mindfulness 8 week course via Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), delivered via video conferencing.  Described by MiSP thus :

.begin introduces you to mindfulness over eight weeks via group sessions of approximately 90 minutes per week, usually in the evening. The course is for those who either work or volunteer in a school or work/volunteer within an educational setting on a regular basis and who are new to mindfulness.

The course is delivered via video conferencing, allowing real-time interaction with your group whilst being led by a highly experienced MiSP instructor.

.begin combines the convenience of a live online course that you can complete in the comfort of your own home with the intimacy of live, face-to-face delivery.

  • Sunday afternoon course at Swansea University.  Details here 

Date: 9 weekly Sunday Afternoon sessions 20th January – 17th March from 12.00 -2.00 every Sunday

Silent half day practice: Sunday 3rd March (1:00pm – 5:00pm)

Parking: Free parking on campus (out of hours)

The price is £175 for 20 hours (9 weeks course) 


If you run or promote a mindfulness course in South Wales, please share your course details in the comment section below.