The costs of the pandemic for the further education sector are at present largely unknown. FE institutions may already be able to identify the initial costs, such as the amount spent on PPE for health and safety procedures and on IT equipment.
However, cost is not limited to the purchase of new equipment. There is the significant cost of staff wellbeing.
The FE workforce is engaging in activities far beyond anything ever expected before the pandemic.
The pressure placed on staff at all levels is significant and further exacerbated by the limited time to ensure equipment, training and support could be put in place before lockdown hit.
‘Wellbeing in the sector already low’
Prior to the pandemic, we already knew that British teachers and educators reported the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety of all occupational groups in the country, according to Health and Safety Executive statistics.
Like the wider education sector, wellbeing in the FE workforce is lower than that of the general population.
So it is vital that senior leaders are given the information and support to better understand the potential impact on their workforce.
Otherwise it’s very likely that workforce retention, organisational performance and student experience will all go into decline.
As noted in the 2019 Ofsted report into wellbeing at work, lower levels of staff wellbeing can lead to a demotivated workforce, higher rates of staff sickness and poor staff retention, all of which impact negatively on the student experience.
It is, therefore, rather unsurprising that Ofsted found ‘outstanding’ providers have the highest levels of staff wellbeing.
‘Efforts to tackle the issue’
Leading voices in FE have sought to produce materials to make a difference.
For example, the Association of Colleges’ mental health and wellbeing charter seeks to create work environments that support mental health and promote wellbeing. The AoC also offers training and support for the sector.
Meanwhile, the Education and Training Foundation commissioned research into staff wellbeing in the sector, and put forward three important recommendations.
It firstly called for the supportive supervision of teachers (particularly those supporting students in difficult circumstances) to help them manage work-life balance and student engagement and to share their experiences.
Secondly, the ETF recommended that senior leaders should review workload content with staff to reduce the number of hours needed to fulfil their job.
And thirdly, employers should offer greater flexibility, such as working at home and uninterrupted administration days.
Unfortunately, the sector had insufficient time to fully consider this report. Three months after its publication the world experienced the global Covid-19 pandemic.
‘A new national survey’
The pandemic does not mean that the fundamental need for research into wellbeing of the FE workforce has gone away. In fact, it is likely that it is needed now more than ever.
In part, this is illustrated by the government’s pledge of the £8 million “wellbeing for education return” announced in summer for September 2020.
This initiative provides funding to local authorities, who are expected to use the funds to develop training for staff in schools and colleges to manage the emotional impact of the pandemic.
But it won’t solve the deep-rooted problems.
The pandemic has wrought such changes in our professional and personal lives that we need to rethink the research.
We need to consider the implications of working from home more frequently, diminished workplace social interactions, home schooling, caring responsibilities and more.
It is for this reason that academics at the University of Portsmouth are launching a new national survey of those working in the FE sector. This survey seeks to replicate previous research into work-life balance and wellbeing – but crucially, this time it will be done in the context of the pandemic.
This new research will seek to better understand the extent to which FE staff can balance work and non-work roles during Covid-19.
Have the boundaries between work and non-work roles became blurred? How is work-life balance managed? What is the impact upon the FE workforce’s wellbeing?
These are the questions we hope to answer. Only then will the true cost of the pandemic be better known.
Dr Stephen Corbett is a lecturer at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.