Abuse and unrest has us tied to the stress test

26th February 2010 at 00:00

Schools are, by their nature, stressful institutions. In secondaries, the sheer numbers of adolescents cooped up in one building for six hours a day - and required to conform to a set of rules which seem arbitrary to them - ensures that anxiety levels are high.

In addition, the push to meet individual and whole-school targets makes everybody feel stressed. Few actors play a solo role, performing and entertaining for five hours a day, all year round. But teachers do, so it's no wonder they are exhausted.

Recently, governors asked me to produce a stress policy for the school. They were going through the policies required as part of our financial management audit, rather than because we'd been aware of the negative effects of stress on staff. I was happy to tell them that we have one but had not revisited it for some time, so I dug it out.

Our stress policy makes it clear that individuals are, ultimately, in charge of managing their stress. This, though, is not what people want to be reminded of when they are feeling overwhelmed.

Lack of time is the biggest cause of stress and we are always chasing our tails, rarely finishing things to our satisfaction. Teachers tend to be perfectionists and get frustrated when they can't do everything really well.

Stress levels are heightened for pastoral and social welfare staff who deal with the most vulnerable pupils in the school. Our designated child protection colleagues hear disturbing information about individual young people daily. Their job is to provide appropriate support and comfort, but this is not always possible when issues are horrendous.

Where social workers have planned supervision sessions, school staff are often left to carry the burden alone. We need to find some way of providing a forum where they can talk through their feelings.

I know when I first became a head of year many years ago, I found it difficult to sleep for many months after attending case conferences and having numerous children disclose their abuse to me. Although we have better structures to manage such situations today, the burden is still heavy.

In our school, we have employed a wonderful psychotherapist who visits one morning a week. The staff who have seen him find the sessions to be invaluable - but it is sometimes difficult to get people to refer themselves and it is often only after some particular dramatic or traumatic event that we think of suggesting this course of action.

Now I think we need to arrange regular sessions for the school staff directly involved in child-protection issues. Staff often think that the need for specialist support is a sign of weakness. We need to change this culture.

Children who are undergoing difficulties at home bring their anxiety and stress into school and display it in a variety of ways. Some will be badly behaved and "act out" when challenged. Even though we know why they are behaving in such a way, there is only so much that teachers and other staff can tolerate, and we are always walking a tightrope - trying to support a troubled child but also wanting to support colleagues who are struggling to keep order and to teach a class.

Some children in distress will truant from school, some will run away from home, others will retreat into themselves and be uncommunicative, or explode at the slightest provocation. We need to provide appropriate support for all.

Dealing with parents and carers can also be very stressful, especially when they are abusive and threatening. Our frontline receptionists have to deal with some of the most extreme forms of behaviour. They are required to keep calm and professional, but I know how difficult this can be. Some of our parents and carers don't manage their anger well and "blow up", taking it out on the first member of staff they come into contact with. Once we have calmed them down, explained the situation and gone through the facts, they often excuse their behaviour because they were "angry"! This is exactly what the children do - and it is inexcusable.

To add to our problems, there has been considerable youth unrest and gang activity in the area and this has unsettled the youngsters as well as the local community. Inevitably, this comes back into school. Even though much of the recent violence and criminal activity has involved older youths and has happened elsewhere in the borough, it still causes tension. The pupils are fractious and revert to ganging together in groups in and outside school.

Incidents that happen in or out of school must be investigated and followed through. Conflict resolution needs to take place and all steps taken to avoid further incidents or revenge attacks. We pride ourselves on picking up vibes when a fight is planned and punish ourselves if we have failed to pick up on the rumours and not intervened to stop it.

Guilt, of course, is probably one of the main causes of stress. So perhaps we need to develop a school guilt policy, too ...

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher, George Green's School, Tower Hamlets, east London.

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