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Lift hearts of heads

Governors are a major source of stress for heads. Lindy Hardcastle finds out how they can be more supportive.

WHEN A headteacher is forced into early retirement by ill health brought on by stress, it is a tragedy for the individual and potentially a disaster for the school.

If the first governors know of the situation is a doctor's certificate and a letter of resignation, they have not been doing their job properly. Stress builds up over months or years and governors have a duty to monitor and, where possible, mitigate it.

Steve Palmer, himself a primary head, spent last term on secondment to Leicestershire education authority, researching ways in which schools, individuals, the authority and governors can tackle stress.

The impetus for this project came from a survey of primary heads in the county, which identified a number of stress factors.

Unfortunately, dealing with governors was identified as a cause of stress to many heads. So how can we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem?

First, Steve says, we need to talk about it. Knowing that stress will be treated seriously and sympathetically by senior management and governors will in itself be reassuring.

Staff must be able to approach the head; and the governors, particularly the chair, have a key role in allowing the head to let off steam.

We should be monitoring rates of staff absence and looking carefully at the reasons for it. The member of staff who goes down with "flu" every three weeks needs help, if only to relieve the stress his frequent absence causes for colleagues.

Workload is a key stress. We must make sure that the tasks for individuals in the school's development plan are reasonable and that timescales and resources are adequate.

We need to accept that some school objectives may be delayed by national priorities such as literacy and numeracy or changes to the post-16 curriculum.

Heads suffer particularly as a result of excessive workloads: rather than overstretch their staff they tend to take extra responsibilities themselves. How many primry heads are also special needs co-ordinators?

Steve also sees a major role for governors in improving staff self-esteem. We need to celebrate publicly the successes of the school. These achievements are not just a matter of league-table performance and governors must help define what "success" means for their school and promote this to parents and the community.

One governor colleague says that his governors' meetings usually result in at least one member of staff receiving a letter of congratulation or appreciation. The annual report can be our opportunity to tell the parents how hard staff are working. We can also use home-school agreements to promote a mutually supportive ethos.

Later in the year, all schools in Leicestershire will receive a copy of Steve Palmer's stress management strategy, and hopefully a headteacher support service will be in place from next April. This will provide a listening ear for heads, feed back concern to the LEA, and provide stress-awareness training.

Governors can press for this service to be introduced in less enlightened authorities. We also need to ensure that our schools' health and safety policies include a section on stress management.

Recent cases where teachers have successfully sued over stress demonstrate that addressing this issue can pay off in financial as well as human terms.

Relatively small amounts of money invested in administrative help, classroom support, non-contact time or management and staff training can pay dividends in the form of lower absence rates and staff turnover.

Governing bodies were originally seen as watchdogs to monitor the teaching profession. Most have long since gone native and are filled with admiration for the dedication and professionalism of most teachers.

The strategies Steve suggests can transform this support into practical help for beleaguered professionals.

Critical friends possibly. But go easy on the critical.

Lindy Hardcastle is a Leicestershire governor.

'Governors have a duty to monitor stress

and, where possible, mitigate it'

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