Breeding grounds for stress

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Psychological well-being is at risk for everyone in schools, writes Phil Goss

As you are digesting the election results, consider this: has the myriad debate in recent times really dug beneath the surface of our education system?

I have tried to raise an issue with policy-makers and politicians which I believe holds a key to healthier schools: the stress suffered by managers, teachers and support staff and the possible impact on pupils.

It is hard to know who is under more pressure - the youngsters who are having huge expectations of success piled on their heads, or the staff who must deliver this success - whatever the personal or professional cost may be.

A major factor that sustains this state of affairs is the inspection framework. I have used the recent consultation to engage in a dialogue with the chief inspector of schools, David Bell. I also consulted the National Association of Head Teachers before asking the views of the education spokespersons of the three main political parties.

I asked Mr Bell about the following issues:

* schools being expected to take responsibility for so many areas of children's lives as well as for the shortcomings of other services

* stress levels in schools, and the role of the Office for Standards in Education in heightening this

* the primitive strategy of "naming and shaming" schools, which brings great fear and anxiety, apart from which, as the NAHT told me, it does nothing to help the recruitment of heads

* the failure of the framework to offer constructive support for inclusive practice for pupils with special educational needs. Pupils with learning difficulties are only just on the radar of curriculum and assessment guidance, making inspection something of a guessing game.

Mr Bell gave a considered response, reflecting an awareness that I was sharing my queries with the political parties. He wrote of extending Ofsted's remit, as an experiment, "beyond the school gate". He also said he was satisfied with the arrangements for inspecting special schools - out on a limb, maybe, but secure.

He did not take the "naming and shaming" bit head on - and that's no surprise, considering it is the framework's "big stick" and best left until it is needed.

This is the basic behaviourist approach to keeping schools in check: either a school is positively reinforced with a glowing report, or the fear of being punished pushes us into giving up that weekend a month before inspection to get our paperwork or displays into perfect shape.

The pay-off is a culture of stress that is sowing real problems for the future. As the NAHT confirmed, "there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence" about stress in schools. Mr Bell said the new framework will tackle stress by not having a long lead-in to inspections. I welcome this - if it works.

But there seems to have been no research on this, so how does Ofsted know it will help?

Since retiring as a head, I have retrained as a psychotherapist, and become more convinced - not least by the number of teachers that have come for help for stress - that things must change before everyone collapses in a heap.

I think the inspector-school relationship replicates the teacher-child relationship in a ghastly way. Schools wait to be patted on the head or admonished like naughty children. While Mr Bell writes of the start-point of inspections in the new framework being school self-evaluation, the crucial end-point is still out of schools' control.

Research on stress shows it is heightened when people have no control over what is going on. Even a modest right of reply would, I believe, make a valuable difference by providing a sense of shared ownership of the process which is currently lacking.

What I found depressing were the responses from the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly and the other main parties. Ms Kelly's office simply referred me to Mr Bell's letter. Tim Collins (Conservative) thanked me briefly for highlighting "how difficult the present system has become", while for the Liberal Democrats Phil Willis's team did say his party is well aware of these issues and if elected would address them. That's as barely visible on the election agenda as this gets.

It is a well-known maxim in psychoanalysis that what you repress tends to hit you with greater force at some later point.

While it remains so difficult to raise these issues, educationists - and the politicians who claim to represent them - can expect the tension beneath the surface in schools to continue to build, with all the consequent damage to teachers and pupils.

As the dust settles on another election, could we not have a proper discussion on the human dimension of schooling - even if our leaders are not interested?

Phil Goss was head of a special school until 2001

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