Women may not really be the weaker sex but they appear to find school inspection more stressful than men do, particularly if they have senior management positions.
Researchers at Oxford Brookes University who carried out a questionnaire survey of 821 secondary teachers who had undergone a full OFSTED inspection found that three times as many women as men said that they felt nervous before an inspection. Women senior managers, however, were about five times as likely as their male colleagues to admit that they were nervous.
The researchers, Nicola Brimblecombe, Michael Ormston and Marian Shaw, also found that teachers had been more on edge if the inspector was a member of the opposite sex. This may help to explain why women find inspection so stressful because three-quarters of the women teachers had had a male inspector while less than 20 per cent of the men had been assessed by a female inspector.
"The power differential between a male inspector and a female teacher is likely to be greater, or perceived to be greater, than between a female teacher and a female inspector," the researchers write in the current issue of Educational Studies. "The notion of a female inspector, with less perceived authority, having a measure of control or power over a male teacher is a situation that the man is unused to and hence is uncomfortable about. Men are less uncomfortable with a male inspector than women because there is a smaller power differential between them."
The researchers speculate that female senior managers feel more nervous than other groups because the effect of an inspection on them is twofold. Not only do they suffer a greater reduction in their usual level of control than a female classroom teacher, but they can also experience a greater power differential between them and a male inspector than a male senior manager does.
The Oxford Brookes team, who also interviewed 35 teachers, found that stress was mentioned consistently.
One teacher told them that inspection had resulted in three members of staff having long-term stress-related illness and another said: "The stress level amongst the staff became acute, these pressures did not stop at the school gates. Family life suffered."
Nevertheless, as the proportion of teachers who said that they had felt nervous when the inspector was in their classroom was relatively small (1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men) the anticipation of an OFSTED inspection may be more stressful than the event itself. Female classroom teachers felt less uncomfortable during the inspection than women in middle or senior management, but the position was reversed for men.
The researchers point out that the findings of a 1991 study of teacher stress by Punch and Tuettemann may help to explain why inspection creates more stress for women.
The earlier research discovered that men have a lower stress threshold than women but reach a stress "plateau" which women may climb above. "In the case of inspection, it may be that men are already experiencing stress from other aspects of teaching and that inspection coming on top of that makes little difference," the Oxford Brookes researchers say. "For women, however, the stresses of teaching have not yet caused such high levels of stress; inspection comes as the last straw."
The researchers add that the problem of stress must be addressed because it impairs teachers' performance and leads to increased absenteeism. Furthermore, it may also be distorting inspection findings.
"While it is unsurprising that an observer affects the usual behaviour of the observed, there are important implications if that effect . . . varies by gender or level of seniority. As the inspection findings have far-reaching implications for the school and for the picture that is being built up of schools, on which crucial decisions may be based, the importance of the findings cannot be underestimated."
Copies of the paper by Brimblecombe, Ormston and Shaw can be purchased for Pounds 10 from Carfax Publishing, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX 14 3UE.