Alarm bells started ringing for Terry Ayres when he conducted an anonymous survey on stress levels among fellow Basingstoke heads - the results revealed that work worries were affecting their sleep and some headteachers were so tense that they felt unable to relax, even at weekends.
"Even very buoyant people are finding stress hard to cope with," he says. And according to Keith Fry, head of Fort Hill Community School in Basingstoke, teachers at all levels are suffering.
"There's no doubt that, 20 years ago, life was nothing like as tough for classroom teachers as it is now. The huge number of innovations, the hundreds of new regulations, the changes in pupil behaviour, the decline in support from the parents - these are all very hard to manage," he said. "Then there is the lack of security; teachers know that they no longer have a job for life - redundancy is a fact".
Keith Fry and Terry Ayres, who is head of Cranbourne School, are now both on the steering group of a confidential counselling service set up by concerned heads. It is available free of charge to Basingstoke teachers in the 23 primary and secondary schools which jointly fund the scheme.
All that the Basingstoke teachers have to do is ring an 0800 Freephone number. Their call is answered by the service's full-time co-ordinator, who matches them with one of the trained counsellors for face-to-face help. Around 4 per cent of teachers in these schools have already used the service, with considerable benefit, as many case studies show. One of the most common problems for middle-aged teachers is a loss of confidence, compounded by a welter of new demands and responsibilities. One member of staff, for instance, was so overwhelmed that he was thinking of taking sick leave, or simply resigning. Counselling helped him to identify the professional issues causing him the most concern, and gave him the support he needed. Instead of resigning, he was able to continue in his job with growing confidence and effectiveness.
Personal problems will also undermine a teacher's performance. A family crisis left one teacher feeling totally unable to cope. Her partner also received counselling and, together, they were able to come to terms with the trauma they had suffered.
Other staff may find it impossible to reconcile the demands of family and career, and need help to redefine their goals. A single parent with teenage children felt so ground down by her increased workload that she was contemplating suicide. Her work and home worries were intruding on each other, and she felt unable to cope in either sphere. She received long-term counselling and support which helped her to rebuild her career and personal life.
Younger, inexperienced teachers may be struggling with discipline problems which are destroying their confidence. They can suffer feelings of sheer panic, and need plenty of back-up and encouragement to use the support of senior staff.
Under exceptional stress, unresolved issues and traumas from the past may re-emerge and add to a teacher's anguish. Sometimes, feelings they suffered as children come to the surface and affect their behaviour. With counselling, people are often able to resolve old problems which they have never been able to face before.
Feedback from the scheme has been very positive. The teachers who have received counselling feel that most of their problems have been resolved. Keith Fry believes strict confidentiality is one of the reasons for its success; people are more likely to come forward for help if they know that word is not going to get back to the headteacher or other staff.
Professionalism is vital, too, says Terry Ayres, who deliberately decided against training members of staff at his school to act as counsellors to other staff. First, it would have taken too long, and second, "with the best will in the world, if the counsellor is another teacher, it will get round the staffroom".
Teachers do not always want to discuss their problems with the headteacher and certainly shouldn't have to, insists Keith Fry. "Sometimes, the head is the problem".
On the other hand schools' membership of the scheme signals the support and concern of headteachers for their staff. "We're trying to send messages to our staff that stress is a serious issue and that we want to help them", says Keith Fry.
That stress is being recognised, almost as a fact of teaching life, means it should not represent weakness or failure. Terry Ayres is not afraid to say that he has received counselling in the past but admits that in some circles for a head to be open about feeling stressed is "tantamount to confessing to Alzheimer's".
The service costs schools Pounds 10 per year for every full-time teacher to belong, so a school with 50 staff is investing Pounds 500 a year. But headteachers think it is worth every penny; it costs Pounds 2,000 when an employee is away for 10 days with a stress-related illness.
For further information about the Basingstoke Counselling Service, please contact: Terry Ayres, Cranbourne School, Wessex Close, Basingstoke. RG21 3NP or Keith Fry, Fort Hill Community School, Kenilworth Road, Winklebury, Basingstoke RG23 8JQ