THE case of Muriel Benson, an English and media studies teacher at Prenton high school in Merseyside, has put teacher workloads back in the spotlight.
Mrs Benson became the first teacher to win compensation for the stress imposed on her by her job. Headlines focused on the pound;47,000 payment she received from Wirral Metropolitan Borough, but the story of her slide into deep depression due to workload pressures may causean aftershock.
Eight years of nine or 10-hour days at school, followed by at least two hours each evening and one day every weekend, were said to have exhausted the energetic head of year who ran the school magazine and an annual poetry festival. After two prolonged absences due to depression, after which her workload was increased, she took early retirement at the end of 1996.
Three years later, Mrs Benson says she is still recovering from the psychological effects of her experience. She is said to be unable to focus on any activity without being obsessive, describes herself as hyperactive and sees her retirement as a kind of bereavement. "My career was taken away from me and the job I love destroyed," she says.
Mrs Benson was the first to teacher to gain compensation for workload pressures but she is unlikely to be the last, in a climate where stress now leads to more lost working days than the common cold.
Open your newspaper, switch on the television, and the bombardment of similar cases begins: "The survey noted evidence of a 32 per cent rise in workloads over the year and regular evening and weekend work was the norm". "It was as though I'd been running at 100 miles an hour and now I was being expected to run at 120 miles an hour", "I find that my constant experience is of trying to run up the down escalator, an escalator that is moving ever faster".
All pretty typical stuff that will strike a sympathetic chord in staffrooms the length of the country. Except none of the articles quoted above was referring to teachers but to district judges, a middle manager in a private company, and an academic.
A trawl of the national press throws up strikingly similar complaints from social workers, Catholic priests, secretaries, vets, personal assistants, factory workers, local government officers, accountants, nurses and doctors, creating the impression of a traumatised workforce in which pressures are becoming unbearable.
A survey by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education showed that 80 per cent of staff in new universities and higher education colleges were seriously considering early retirement, with 72 per cent saying unmanage-able workloads had led to their dissatisfaction.
Nearly half of a similar survey of social workers wanted to leave their profession because of stress, 71 per cent of nurses wanted to change jobs and 40 per cent of general practitioners felt the same way.
Official statistics show that professional people in many walks of life are working harder. The average weekly hours of Britain's professional workforce rose by only half an hour between 1992 and 1999, from 41.3 hours to 41.9 hours, although the figures for the workforce as a whole, both professional and non-professional, showed a fall from 38.2 hours to 37.8 hours.
Mike Cahill, secretary to the School Teachers' Review Body, which is due to produce a new report on teachers' workloads next year, warns against too heavy a reliance on working hours statistics. They measure the bulk but not necessarily the weight of a workload. On what scale, for instance, can you measure two hours spent doing heart surgery, four hours in front of a classroom of rowdy teenagers, and nine hours wading through red tape?
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and the author of workload and stress studies in more than 50 industries, adds that such measures do not capture the stress of major changes in work patterns which may not necessarily increase working time. In simple terms, a new task or responsibility will tend to weigh heavier than work that has always been part of a job.
However, the working hours statistics produced by the Government's Office for National Statistics do give a more localised picture of workload changes across the workforce. Some groups appear to be suffering more than others and many of the losers over the past seven years, on this evidence at least, seem to have been in teaching.
Natural scientists have actually seen their working hours fall from 43.1 hours a week to 41.9 hours a week since 1992, engineers and technologists work an average of one-and-a-half hours less and health professionals' work 48.5 hours a week compared to 51.1 hours. Business and financial professionals have shown an imperceptible increase from 42.4 hours a week to 42.5.
The big increases have come for lawyers and teachers. Both groups now work an average of two more hours a week.
While teachers' total hours are reckoned at only 39.2 hours a week, (well below the new European Union limit on working time of 48 hours and lower than the professional average of 41.9 hours), the working habits of further and higher education professionals appear to be masking very long hours worked in schools.
The 1997 report by the School Teachers' Review Body on teachers' workloads, said that the average secondary classroom teacher was working 50.3 hours a week, compared to 48.9 hours two years before. Primary classroom teachers worked 50.8 hours, a rise of two hours on the previous study, and a secondary head worked 61.7 hours a week, compared to 61.1 hours in 1994.
That means that classroom teachers' working hours increased by more than three times the average increase across the professional population, in less than a third of the time. The total was generally more than 25 per cent higher than the average professional.
Add to this an understanding of the stress imposed by massive changes in the nature of the work asked of teachers over the past decade, and Professor Cooper believes teachers can be seen as something of a special case.
"While people in all sectors have been asked to take on bigger workloads, teachers have been given a great deal to cope with and have not been given the flexibility to manage the work as they wish - in the way that, say, a private-sector manager can. There is a lot of time spent accounting for time in education now and a lot of rules saying how things should be done. That adds to the weight of the load."
The advent of the national curriculum, testing and the inspection regime have increased the load. Central government now has greater control over what teachers do in their classrooms. It closely monitors the results of that work and enforces ever more frantic efforts to improve the performance of local authorities, schools, and teachers.
The literacy and numeracy strategies appear to be tightening the screws further. A survey by the National Association of Head Teachers this month revealed that 98 per cent of schools believed the literacy hour had increased working hours. And the now almost complete delegation of education budgets to schools has ensured there has been no respite for senior staff.
With the Government's Green Paper on teachers' pay and conditions widely seen as threatening still greater workloads through performance-related pay, ministers might do well to heed possible repercussions from the Muriel Benson case: the National Union of Teachers alone has 100 cases like hers on the way to court. Increased stress on teachers is likely to dent Government coffers in future.