Dear Ted

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Some of us suspect the has a although we have What should we do?

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

First, review the evidence. Is it well-founded, or just suspicion? Beer on the breath from an occasional lunchtime shandy may be ill-advised, but it does not indicate alcoholism. Bear-hugging colleagues and slurring "You're my best mate, you are", probably does.

Unfortunately, alcoholism can be a real problem among senior people in education. A clinical psychologist told me that she now deals with more and more headteachers whose response to stress is a weekend bender: drinking heavily on Friday evening and Saturday, and sobering up on Sunday. When I told this to a group of heads, one called out "Only at weekends?" We all joke about it, but it can be a serious matter.

One reason some heads turn to alcohol, especially the most conscientious, is because they are unwilling to settle for second best. As pressures mount, middle-aged professionals begin to doubt their own ability to cope. Unwilling to prioritise by kicking the hell out of vital jobs and letting less important matters slide a little, they begin to drink instead, hoping to anaesthetise their problems. Unfortunately, alcoholism then compounds rather than resolves their stress, often causing depression.

A trusted senior colleague, like the deputy, should talk to your head in private - not easy, but worth the effort, as it could nip a potential disaster in the bud. The head may deny it (and may, of course, be telling the truth), but the point needs to be put that the staff are concerned in a caring, not accusing, way.

The head may start with denial and even be quite shirty, but then become willing to talk later, relieved that the problem is at last shared. It is an extremely difficult matter to raise, but at least it can lead to proper professional help being available. The alternative is much worse - embarrassment, widespread stress among staff, involvement of others, like the chairman of governors, even disciplinary procedures. Grasp the nettle.

You say

If you notice, it is already serious Given that you and some colleagues have already noticed it tends to indicate that there most definitely is a problem. Alcoholics are experts in the art of deception (including self-deception), and the fact that the mask has slipped probably indicates that the situation is getting worse. This points to the need for some sort of intervention - the slide is unlikely to be self-arresting, and yet it is already too late to think you can nip this in the bud. Believe me, it is already serious.

Intervention should be on at least two grounds: for the good of the school, and for the good of the head. The nature of the intervention is, of course, key. And it is the nature of the cause of the problem that is the best guide to the nature of the intervention - we are almost certainly dealing with an illness here and not simply the behavioural symptoms.

The stigma is as much of a problem as the illness itself, and it is compounded by the possibility that the victim may be in denial. Confrontation is definitely not on.

The use of a trusted third party is worth a try. This need not involve the local education authority at an early stage. Rather, try to tap into an appropriate network. Another head, perhaps, who is known as a friend of your head may be able to encourage the sufferer to seek help. An advantage of this route is that another head may be best able to understand the sort of pressures that lead to this illness.

Anonymous, Worthing.

Approach as a group

This has to approached with caution, but also upfront. You might be wary, but when it comes to the welfare of the pupils and staff it has to be dealt with. Be part of a team, no one person should approach. He can't sack you all if you're wrong. Speaking to a concerned governor may well be an avenue, also as well as seeking professional advice.

Cheryl Lo, Hertfordshire.

Share your concerns

When I worked in a similar situation, the staff did not speak out. We should have done. You say you have no proof, but you must have made observations that are causing you concern. In my experience, these might include: the headteacher drinking heavily (and not eating) at staff lunches, regular periods of unexplained absence - particularly over lunchtime - smelling alcohol on the person's breath, and reports that the cup in their office smells of alcohol rather than of tea or coffee.

It is important that you share your concerns with another party whose impartiality and professionalism can be relied on. This may be the deputy head, the chair of governors or the LEA attached inspector. You will need to make your own judgments about who is most suitable for your situation.

Strong leadership and inebriation are not compatible. The children, staff and parents at your school deserve better and need to feel secure that the head is giving his or her best. Therefore, it is important that you share your concerns so that support can be given and the school can move forward.

Primary teacher, London.

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