The Knowledge

Covid toll: What we’ve learned about teacher anxiety

New research reveals the extent of the Covid pandemic's impact on teacher anxiety levels and how different groups have fared, explains John Jerrim

New research reveals the extent of the Covid pandemic's impact on teacher anxiety levels and how different groups have fared, explains John Jerrim

14 Nov 2022, 5:00

The COVID-19 pandemic led to one of the biggest shocks the world has ever seen. Schools were shut, remote instruction became widespread and government policy seemed to be changing overnight.

Teachers and headteachers faced some of the biggest disruptions to and uncertainty around working conditions, lasting for almost two years, with major knock-on effects on mental health.

As part of a project supported by the Nuffield Foundation, we tracked teacher’s and headteachers’ anxiety about work at 75 points between October 2019 and July 2022, using an app called TeacherTapp.

Our main finding was that anxiety about work was not evenly distributed across school staff – with significant differences seen across roles, school type, gender, and parental status.

We found that over the past two-and-a-half years, headteachers bore the brunt of work-related anxiety – with their levels of anxiety more than doubling at the pandemic peak in January 2021, compared to pre-pandemic.

Before the pandemic hit, 25 per cent of headteachers were highly anxious about work – slightly above the level of class teachers (20 per cent). But this changed dramatically once the pandemic arrived in the UK. Outside of school holidays, 30 to 40 per cent of headteachers regularly had high levels of anxiety about work during the pandemic – reaching a peak of 65 per cent in January 2021, when the government was flip-flopping on whether to shut schools.

These are quite shocking figures – and show just how severely our school leaders have been affected by the fallout from the pandemic. More worryingly, it appears to have had an impact on the recruitment pipeline; the share of deputy and assistant heads who say they want to become a headteacher one day fell by eight percentage points (from 56 per cent pre-pandemic to 48 per cent post-pandemic).

Headteachers bore the brunt of work-related anxiety

Yet, overall, we found that class teachers themselves – after an initial spike – became less anxious about work than before Covid hit. When the first lockdown was announced, high work-related anxiety doubled from 20 per cent to 40 per cent of teachers. However, after this, their work-related anxiety went back down to levels slightly lower than during the pre-pandemic period for the remainder of the 2019/20 academic year – standing at around 15 per cent.

One possible explanation is that teachers were working fewer hours than usual during this time – around 30 hours per week in May/June 2020 compared with around 45 hours during the same months in 2021.

We also found independent school teachers were more anxious than state school teachers during the first wave (around 0.6 points higher on a 0-10 scale). This may be because they were completing different activities, as well as working longer hours. Independent schoolteachers were early adopters of live lessons and much more likely to be generating new learning content at the start of the pandemic. They were also working on average up to ten hours more than state schoolteachers per week.

Consistent with trends among the general population, female teachers felt particularly anxious about work, with the gender gap in teachers’ anxiety levels around 0.3 points higher than usual between March 2020 and February 2022.

Lastly, we found that female teachers with young children suffered a lot more than men. Before the pandemic, male and female teachers with children under the age of five were reasonably similar in terms of their anxiety about work – but this changed significantly. Women with under-fives became much more anxious about work than male teachers with under-fives, particularly during the period after schools first re-opened in September 2020, and between September 2021 and February 2022 (including the Omicron wave).

There are number of possible policy responses to these findings, targeting certain demographics withing the teacher workforce. But two general recommendations stand out: more needs to be done to support and equip staff with the information and resources they need during times of crisis and uncertainty, and action is needed now to reverse the pandemic’s impact on junior members of staff’s aspirations for headship.

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