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Solace for the uneasy mind

Support services that help heads to deal with stress are catching on around the country, writes Martin Whittaker

It is four years since Jenny Hill retired as a primary school head. She now travels throughout rural Gloucestershire lending a sympathetic ear to the woes of her stressed-out colleagues.

Jenny is a co-ordinator with the county's headteacher support group, a confidential service set up to help heads of primary and special schools to cope with the increasing pressures of the job.

She says workload and staffing issues are the main complaints.

"We go in and listen. We might be able to refer them to someone else, or make some suggestions. But sometimes if they are faced with a particular problem they haven't thought through, they can resolve it just by talking to someone else. Because we're not involved, we can see things objectively."

The first support service began in Somerset 10 years ago in response to concern - even then - about the pressure on heads.

Brian Trust of the Somerset primary heads' association, which lobbied for the scheme, says: "We had around 20 colleagues out of 224 schools at the time who were off with various degrees of stress.

"We used the argument that the local education authority was the employer, and therefore had a duty of care. The expectation was that heads would look after their staff, so it seemed logical that the LEA should take care of its headteachers."

The issue of stress is as pressing as ever. In January, the head of a secondary in Manchester was found hanged at his home after going on leave with what was believed to be a stress-related illness.

Running a village school in a rural shire might seem worlds away from a tough inner-city comprehensive, but primary heads are still under great pressure, says Mr Trust.

In Somerset, which has a large number of small schools, heads are preoccupied with falling rolls and school reorganisation. With much talk of school closures and amalgamation, heads feel torn between loyalty to their schools and their communities.

Mr Trust believes that stress at home can add to the pressure.

"Often if you have stress at work and none at home, or the reverse, it's manageable," he says.

"But if you have both, that's a real issue. Early signs of stress and dealing with isolation is a real problem, particularly in small schools.

And primary heads aren't very good at looking after themselves - they do tend to put themselves last."

Co-ordinators contact all schools and visit them all at least once a year.

They will arrange to visit again if a head is having a problem and wants to talk in confidence.

Somerset's support service also runs what it calls "reflection courses". It takes heads on a residential course to help them look at their work-life balance and general well-being, and to teach them strategies for coping with stress.

But is there not a danger the service treads on the toes of LEA advisers and heads' associations who also offer support?

Brian Trust insists that it acts like a triage, assigning support where it is needed most urgently and nipping problems in the bud.

"You talk to colleagues and decide whether all they need is a chat, whether they need you to come back, or whether they need to talk to someone else," he says.

"We have been quite clear that the service can only offer advice. It cannot support a colleague who needs professional association advice. If colleagues are getting into difficulties, we would urge them to contact their unions."

The schemes are funded variously, depending on the authority. Somerset's service is funded by the education authority and employs two part-time former heads as co-ordinators who cover primary, middle and special schools.

In Devon, the service is paid for by schools. In Gloucestershire it is half-funded by the LEA, half from school budgets.

The Gloucestershire service has been running for six years and is well-used. Between March and July last year, its co-ordinators made 61 visits to primary schools, and letters from heads show that the support is gratefully received.

One head says: "I have used the service on several occasions this year as confidential support in new and challenging situations. I was listened to, and it felt wonderful."

Another was having a stressful time dealing with parents who were not following the school's complaints procedure but going straight to county council officers and their local MP.

"It was a wonderful relief to be able to call on the support service to talk things through," the head commented. "A calm, reassuring manner plus an ability to draw on first-hand experience helped to restore my confidence and move me on to deal with the parents more objectively."

Similar heads' support services operate in counties throughout most of the South-west. Other LEAs - including Bradford, Kirklees and Norfolk - have set up their own services.

Could the service go national? All the support services in the South-west now hold regular meetings, and a national conference in May 2003 attracted delegates from other authorities thinking of following suit.

The National College for School Leadership has also recognised the need for extra support for heads. Its online discussion forum talk2learn now acts as a support network for around 60,000 heads and senior managers.

But Mr Trust is surprised that more authorities have not taken up Somerset's support model.

"The cost is around pound;46,000 a year, which is a drop in the ocean if you prevent two heads from going off sick with stress," he says. "And this is one way to support recruitment and retention.

"My feeling is that people are reluctant to become heads when they see what heads have to do.

"But if we can support them and make it look as if you can get a reasonable work-life balance, then maybe more people would want to come into headship."

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