Cut-and-paste cure for the summertime blues

2nd July 2010 at 01:00

Ah, summer. The smell of roses and the pad-pad of tennis balls. The marking load is lighter and there is even time to make daisy chains. But what if all that is happening to others while you are stressed and miserable?

Stress is different in summer. Winter stress brings solidarity around the biscuit tin. Summer can worsen feelings of isolation in a stressed teacher because it is the season labelled "happy". Others waft about planning holidays - what's the matter with you?

The "easy summer term" is a myth. The NASUWT union recently published research on teacher stress by Compass, the centre for mental health research and policy. The report, Teachers' Mental Health, recommends how to reduce teachers' stress and mental illness. This should be on Education Secretary Michael Gove's reading list. It cites the top five sources of teacher stress and mental ill-health: workload; conflicting demands; bad pupil behaviour; increased class size; and lack of management support.

"Part of your professionalism is taken away from you because so many decisions are made for you," says one teacher. An inspector leaves another "just dragging myself through every minute of every day ... Now it's just a job and it was never just a job ... It was my joy ... ".

Heartbreaking case studies are balanced by others where a school succeeds in helping a sick teacher to return to work. One says: "The headteacher said, 'I want you to come in for half an hour for a cup of tea and sit with me.' He knew that I was scared of coming back to the school."

The issue of a phased return to work is timely. In April, the rules on sick notes changed. Instead of just signing you off sick, a GP can now write a "fit note" that tells your employer what you can do. This takes fine judgment: do too much and you will get ill again; do too little and, in the case of mental illness, you miss out on all the social interaction crucial to recovery.

Peter Harvey, the teacher recently cleared of attempting to murder a pupil, had asked for a "phased return" before the incident. He has since warned: 'There are lots of teachers who are ticking time bombs ... I know teachers who, because of stress, can't hold a cup of coffee or are too frightened to cross the road."

Mr Gove and his team should heed the clarity with which this report sets out whole-system reform. It is not enough "to promote an individualistic model of stress rather than systemic". Improve our working conditions - don't just give us massage tokens.

The Government must "reduce the paperwork and burdens associated with pupil assessment", "review the ... cumulative impact of accountability systems and school inspection" and provide "longer bedding in prior to new initiatives". Go on, Mr Gove: cut and paste that into your plans for reform. It will do more for staff and pupils everywhere than academies will.

We need schools that make stress and mental illness less likely in the first place. Two decades' worth of governments have been blind to this. The new one must face facts - or wake up and smell the recruitment crisis.

- The full report is at: www.nasuwt.org.ukMentalHealthReport

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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