Stress is growing: but how greatly?

It is no good getting uptight about it. Researchers have looked deeply into the evidence and come to the unedifying conclusion that they really haven't much of a clue about the extent of teacher stress in Scottish schools.

Everyone agrees stress has increased - and there's even a specialist agency to cope with it - but only a handful of dated studies north of the border point to any firm support for the concept of damage caused to teachers and the education they deliver by the dreaded S-word.

There is no definitive backing for the idea that teachers are far more stressed than other professionals.

Policy-makers simply do not have the detail they need and it would help if they had a working definition, according to the Scottish Council for Research in Education, which has conducted a worldwide research review for the Scottish Executive. Unfortunately, out of 900 references, only 14 were Scottish and four of those were immediately discounted.

The most relevant information came from two previous surveys of workload, funded by the Educational Institute of Scotland, and two old SCRE reviews.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the researchers seek published statistics on teacher absence rates and reasons for early retirals. Local authorities might want to conduct exit interviews with teachers who take early retirement, while it would be equally helpful to have a "teacher-specific measure of occupational stress".

The indicator should include "job, organisational, personality pre-disposition, and strain scales" which apply to teaching and could be used to monitor changes.

The researchers also want more evaluation of the impact of teachers' stress on interactions with pupils and how teachers cope with stress.

In their general findings, the SCRE team report that job stress is caused largely by increased workload and poor communications. Teachers worry about pupils' misbehaviour, poor working conditions - especially relationships with colleagues - overload and poor school ethos.

"There is considerable evidence, mainly from self-reports, that teachers feel ill as a consequence of excessive stress. However, available absence and retirals statistics are not sufficiently specific to support this connection," they conclude.

The advice for teachers struggling to cope with stress is to develop realistic, positive attitudes and good physical health. In practice, most coping strategies tend to be "palliative as by and large teachers feel they are unable to address the root causes of their occupational stress".

Time-out or sabbaticals are being used in England, yet these need more evaluation, says SCRE. "More optimistically, some researchers suggest that the movement towards self-reflection helps protect teachers from stress," it adds.

Leader, page 12 'Feeling the Strain: an overview of the literature on teachers' stress' is available on the Scottish Council for Research in Education website.

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