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Extra pressure piled on for Catholic heads

Maintaining the Church's values adds to already high stress, reports David Budge. Headteachers of Roman Catholic schools in the Birmingham Archdiocese appear to be experiencing higher levels of occupational stress than any previous study has suggested.

Sixty per cent of the heads who took part in a small-scale survey said that they found their job "very stressful" and a further 26 per cent admitted that it was "extremely stressful".

The stress was caused by a variety of factors, but Paul Walmsley, head of St Columba's RC primary, Rednal, who questioned 50 of his fellow heads as part of an MEd course, found that much of the pressure that they experienced could be traced back to the 1988 Education Reform Act.

All the long-serving heads said that the job had become more stressful in the past six years, irrespective of whether they taught in a city or rural school.

Paul Walmsley says: "Work overload and time pressures were the most frequent and intense stressors reported. Financial delegation to schools has also created pressures - some of the Birmingham schools have only had fully delegated budgets since April - but it is likely that the high levels of stress it causes will fall as heads become used to the new routines and administration of local management."

On top of these problems, which are, of course, common throughout the state education service, heads of Roman Catholic schools have to contend with other pressures that are unique to their sector.

The heads who took part in the questionnaire survey said that they did not feel pressured by the obligation to prepare children for Holy Communion and Confirmation, but they none the less rated "main-tenance of values and attitudes" as even more stress-inducing than pupil misbehaviour or poor attitude to work.

They were also apprehensive about the prospect of inspections by the archdiocesan authorities, and although visits from the parish priest, who might also be the chairman of governors, were often helpful they could also be a source of stress.

The heads admitted that their work stress had resulted in frustration, exhaustion, apathy and irritability. They also felt very dissatisfied with their jobs. Some had tried to reduce their anxiety levels by "attempting to come to terms with each individual situation, acceptance of the problem, relaxation and social support mechanisms". But Paul Walmsley comments that these coping techniques are not going to work for everyone, nor are they necessarily the best strategies.

He suggests that heads should formulate their own individual stress management programmes and that the Birmingham Catholic Primary Heads' Association, the archdiocese, and the local education authority's in-service trainers should be involved in this exercise. "We must respond to this situation or face the consequences of living and working with high levels of occupational stress, " he concludes.

* Many students are suffering from excessive stress, and at least one in 10 may need professional help to overcome the problem.

Reda Abouserie, a lecturer in educational psychology, has reached this conclusion after analysing questionnaire responses from 675 second-year undergraduate students at the University of Wales College of Cardiff.

Female students were found to be more stressed than males - a conclusion that other researchers have also reached - and Dr Abouserie, who lectures at the Cardiff college, suggests that further research is needed to identify the precise reasons for this discrepancy. Dr Abouserie also recommends that much more should be done to help students to recognise and manage stress.

Predictably, the main stressors were "examinations and their results", "too much to do", and "the need to do well". However, social-related stressors such as "financial problems" and "lack of time for family and friends" were also significant.

The university's administrators will be reassured to learn that "conflict with the college system" and "conflict with lecturers" caused relatively little stress. But, perhaps surprisingly, sexual problems appear to be even less of a worry. Even though this is the era of Aids the students placed this category last in a list of 34 potential stressors.

A fuller account of Dr Abouserie's findings is published in Educational Psychology, Volume 14 Number 3.

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