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The grass isn't always greener on the other side

An elegant country house set in glorious grounds, bathed in summer sunshine. Its inhabitants are polite, well-behaved young girls, with glossy manes of chestnut brown hair wearing neat blazers and straw boaters tied with ribbon.

The holidays (for there are many) approach: pupils have sailed through exams and the cries of enthusiastic lacrosse players ring out across the acres of sports fields. Staff, meanwhile, suck on their finely carved wooden pipes and look back on another blissful year of pedagogy, complete with free accommodation.

To a teacher sweating it out in a crumbling inner-city comprehensive in the middle of February, this vision of British private school life could seem irresistible. Indeed, about 1,500 qualified state school teachers, 550 NQTs and 422 new graduates secured jobs in schools belonging to the Independent Schools Council last year. Many others will have gone to work in the 800 other independent schools across Britain. An appointment in the private sector is often regarded as a great way to gain teaching experience as there is no legal requirement to be qualified.

But recent reports have shown that the reality does not match the dream. It seems that working in a private school does not necessarily shield teachers from high levels of stress, overwork and burn-out, even if their classes are half the size of those in the maintained sector.

This was demonstrated last month when an inquest into the death of 35-year-old independent school teacher Robert White ruled he had taken his own life jumping off the Humber Bridge after finding his work commitments "difficult".

Colleagues of the Hull maths teacher told the hearing he always seemed to be taking football, rugby or Duke of Edinburgh extra-curricular activities. His wife said confusion over whether he would be paid for a work placement in a nearby academy, to help him gain a teaching qualification, had "contributed" to his stress.

The case of Malvern College housemistress Barbara White, who earned just #163;3.75 an hour for a 100-hour week, also illustrated potential problems over pay and hours.

After legal action led to an award of #163;12,000 in damages, she told newspapers she had found her six-day weeks "exhausting".

This is far from a one-off incident. A 2007 survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the dominant union in the sector, found that 21 per cent of independent school staff had consulted their GP about work-related stress, and just under half said they were stressed by their workload.

By 2009, a separate survey found nearly 40 per cent admitted to working between 49 and 60 hours a week, with nearly a quarter working on Saturdays. Many boarding school staff said they clocked up as many as 100 hours a week.

And a study published by the Centre for the Economics of Education in November last year reported that although general overall job satisfaction was higher in the private sector until 1998, this has now fallen more significantly among private school teachers than than their counterparts in the maintained sector.

Competition for Private and State School Teachers also reported that among private school teachers, satisfaction with working hours was starting to slip, converging with the views of state sector staff.

There have always been private schools offering contractual terms vastly inferior to the state sector. However, those working with victims of stress have attributed the apparent plunge in morale and rise in hours to a number of other trends. Concerns over job security has become a key issue.

In the past two years, the recession has been cited as the reason for dozens of teacher redundancies and school closures, causing anguish for those left without a job and creating extra work for "survivors". In 2010, there were at least 17 closures or mergers, and job cuts have been taken place across the country as schools attempt to stay above water.

In 2009, sportsmaster Tony Smyth was dubbed "the unluckiest teacher in Britain" after being made redundant from two prep schools in a very short space of time.

Those forced to close or make cutbacks are often the small, owner-run schools where margins are already tight. Many closures have led to union disputes amid claims of unpaid wages or unfair redundancy procedures (see box).

And the situation looks unlikely to improve in the near future. Former banker and current governor Eton College governor David Verey predicted last March that the worst effects of the recession on the independent sector would not be felt until September. He said schools that did not slim down and adopt a "no-frills" style of education would be "murdered".

None of this is good news for teachers, who will be expected to do more for less if schools decide to take this approach.

Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network, which advises teachers from both sectors on work-related problems, said: "Many of the issues are connected to the pressure created by the economic crisis. Teachers are aware that the parents paying for their children are paying their salaries. Workload often surfaces as an issue as jobs are cut and more jobs become part-time.

"Whatever sector you are working in, stress is a major problem."

Sharon Liburd, solicitor at the ATL, said: "We are getting people made redundant at the 11th hour after months of rumours, salaries being paid late and other warning signs, but nothing being said by the management.

"This makes it a very stressful situation."

Another key factor blamed for higher stress levels and lower job satisfaction is the infiltration of Government initiatives into private sector classrooms.

Independent Association of Prep schools chief executive David Hanson says initiatives introduced over the past 10 years, such as the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), is just one example.

"Autonomy, responsibility, and control are the key to happiness and high satisfaction, so when you have things like the EYFS imposed on schools and staff you remove these things and deskill and demoralise teachers."

He believes that the increasing need for compliance with official regulations and inspectors also creates extra workload and stress.

In the TES chatrooms, teachers themselves, are expressing reservations about working in independent schools. Many found it hard to keep up with the amount of "goodwill" expected of them in terms of doing extra-curricular activities. High parental expectations - sometimes of average-ability pupils - was another cause of strain, they said.

One, who has since left the sector, wrote: "The pay was better, but the hours were long and the stress was high. The expectations and level of expected achievements were very high.

"I was teaching all the KS2 hockey, running six teams, three year-group after-school clubs and all the fixtures associated with them.

"I was an unqualified inexperienced teacher who was thrown in at the deep end, and at times very nearly drowned. All my requests for help fell on deaf ears. Now I have left, they have three teachers doing my sports job.

"I do think the independent sector provides a very good education for the children, but be careful that you have the support of your senior management teams and that they don't expect to get blood out of a stone."

However, despite the persistent hum of disgruntled teachers, the private sector insists that good independent schools work hard to keep their staff happy, and that there are plenty of good ones out there.

Helen Wright, this year's president of the Girls' Schools Association and headteacher of St Mary's Calne school, in Wiltshire, said: "It really matters that staff are engaged and working to the best of their ability, and they will only do that in a positive working environment.

"They do have to work hard, the term time is intense and expectations are high, so you have to make sure you have a strong and supportive leadership and make sure teachers new to the school have support and a strong introduction before starting there."

New teachers at St Mary's have a mentor and the chance to visit the school for a couple of days before they start work there. Dr Wright adds that the school has made a number of small changes to help teachers' worklife balance. The school pool now opens at 6.30am so staff can swim before work. "We like to look after them in the staffroom too, making sure their chairs are comfy and the coffee is good, it shows we value them." She also highlights the fact that the significantly longer holidays go some way to balancing out busy term times.

So for anyone looking for long holidays and intense but rewarding term times, working at a financially secure and well-run independent school might not be such a bad choice - so long as you choose your school carefully.

TERMS AND CONDITIONS - Unfair dismissal nets #163;8k pay-out

Christine Robinson knows the perils of working in an independent school beset by financial troubles.

The Year 2 teacher has just won an #163;8,000 compensation pay-out for unfair dismissal and breach of contract from her former employers at Attenborough Prep, in Nottinghamshire, after she was unfairly treated during its closure in the summer of 2009.

When the small school hit financial difficulties in April that year, the owners asked her to sign a new contract agreeing to shorten her notice period from one term to one week.

She initially refused to sign it, but eventually yielded. However, the Nottingham employment tribunal ruled that the school's owners should pay her for the full term notice period she had been entitled to under her old contract because she signed the new contract while "under duress" and fearful of dismissal.

The tribunal also found that the school "failed to consult fairly and properly" with Mrs Robinson over the redundancy and "failed to consider her for suitable alternative employment" which was available at another school owned by the company.

Mrs Robinson, who now works in the state sector, said: "Losing my job was made far more stressful and traumatic by the fact they didn't follow the procedures properly. They didn't show any awareness of the employment rules, things like always being allowed a representative in the room with you in meetings for example, or consulting properly with staff. There was just a lack of formality."

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