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Autonomous teachers are happier teachers, research finds

Teachers who feel in control of their working lives are significantly happier than those whose headteachers allow them little autonomy, research shows.

But it is equally important not to empower teachers so much that they end up overburdened, argues the author of the study, Candy Whittome of Birkbeck, University of London.

“A little bit doesn’t do very much,” she said. “The right amount is perfect. And too much is too much. It’s exactly like Goldilocks.”

Ms Whittome surveyed more than 27,000 teachers from 667 primary and secondary schools. Her findings were presented at a debate on recruitment and retention, hosted last night by the Education Support Partnership (formerly the Teacher Support Network).

She found that teachers who were given organisational autonomy – the ability to make decisions within school – were significantly less likely to be stressed at work than those who were not permitted similar levels of freedom.

In primary schools, teachers allowed organisational autonomy experienced 12.7 per cent less strain than those who were not. Among secondary teachers, this figure rose to 14.5 per cent.

However, when teachers were supported by headteachers and school leaders who were keen to empower their staff, the levels of workplace stress dropped even more.

Secondary teachers supported by their heads felt 20.8 per cent less workplace stress than those who were not given similar support. Among primary teachers, this figure was 22.2 per cent.

“It’s ‘I feel my contribution is valued’ or ‘I feel supported by my line manager’," Ms Whittome said. "They feel supported not just in the work they do, but as human beings.”

This was echoed by Julian Stanley, chief executive of Education Support Partnership.

“The more you’re involved in creating something, the more you’re likely to take some ownership of it,” he said. “We have to give people space to lead.

“Staff engagement is often seen as a fluffy thing, in addition to how an institution operates. But the most inspiring schools recognise that it’s the people in the classroom who need to participate the most.”

But, like Ms Whittome, Mr Stanley points out that there is a fine line between empowering staff and overburdening them. “If you want people to participate in improving the quality of education, then you need to give them the time and space to do it,” he said.


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