A high ranking in the stress league

17th January 1997 at 00:00
Teachers face as much stress in their jobs as policemen, prison officers and ambulance staff, according to a leading industrial psychologist.

Although teaching is not as intrinsically stressful as these other occupations, the variety and pace of recent changes in education, combined with the less secure social setting in which teachers now operate, make this generation of teachers a very highly stressed group, says Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. And teachers have felt all the more stressed because they were not involved in the changes.

Professor Cooper was commenting on last week's TES survey of teachers' attitudes, which found them cynical, apathetic and full of a sense of impotence as a result of their declining professional status and constant "teacher-bashing" by politicians and the press.

With the Patients, Citizens and Parents Charter, Britain had created a "monster" of expectation in many areas of the public sector, Professor Cooper said.

"Now there is great demand for all sorts of goods that are difficult to produce when you don't have the financial infrastructure to do it," he added.

Twenty years ago, teachers entering the profession could expect a great deal of respect from the community and a lot of autonomy when they walked into the classroom. Now, their image is not positive and their autonomy has been lost by the imposition of the national curriculum and assessment.

This should not be a problem for the next generation of teachers, Professor Cooper said, because the job would match their expectations - "unless education starts becoming a political football again and rapid changes are introduced without involving the teachers."

The stress produced by recent changes is demonstrated by the success of a 24-hour helpline set up by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers 18 months ago.

More than 1,000 calls have been taken so far by nine staff, working in shifts. The present rate is about 20 a week, some coming in straight after school, but most after 8 o'clock in the evening, including two or three in the small hours when teachers wake up and can't bear to worry alone any more.

The commonest worries? Class size, bullying (dealing with it and experiencing it), increasing workloads that spill over into home life, leading to exhaustion, irritability and marital problems.

But it is Chris Woodhead who seems to have the tightest grip on teachers' psyches. Whether they are fretting over the prospect or worrying about the result, the commonest cause of teacher stress seems to be OFSTED inspections.

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