Harsh realities of urban schools

29th September 2006 at 01:00
* 63% of staff in deprived schools suffer either serious illness or stress * Older staff need more support and training * Their exam statistics decline with age

Teachers working in schools serving the country's most deprived communities have always known that their jobs were tough. Now research has confirmed it.

Nottingham and London universities, in one of the most extensive studies of teachers' lives, classified them into groups based on the number of children in their school on free meals. They found that the greater the poverty in the school community, the more likely teachers were to suffer from ill health or to have a poor worklife balance.

Professor Christopher Day, who led the project, said: "The teachers we looked at in disadvantaged communities were not any less effective than others, but the incidence of ill health was greater.

"It ranged from stress to serious medical conditions. Teachers in more advantaged schools did not tend to mention their health."

Teachers in schools where more than a fifth of pupils have free meals were three times as likely to have "overwhelmingly negative" lives with a poor worklife balance than colleagues elsewhere.

However, teachers working in the toughest schools are not the worst off, the study found. It was the group with the second highest number of children on free meals that felt less resilient. The report's authors believe this is because they encounter many of the problems of the toughest schools, but receive less support. They also speculated that teachers in the most deprived schools are more likely to have made a positive decision to work in that environment.

Interviews with 300 teachers revealed that in primaries with up to a fifth of pupils on free meals, a quarter had suffered ill health. This increased to 37 per cent where the numbers on free meals were higher.

In secondaries in the lower free meals category, 42 per cent of teachers had suffered ill health, but in more deprived schools the figure rose to 63 per cent.

John Bangs, NUT head of education, said: "The Government has wrung its hands over schools failing children in these areas, but the reality is that it is tough and that affects everyone, including teachers and their health."

The study looked at all the stresses affecting teachers, from those in their personal lives, to workload and relations with colleagues. Those in the most unstable category had things going wrong in their personal, professional and school lives all at the same time. While the number in this group was small (6 per cent), they were more likely to be in schools with high free meal take-up.

The research suggested causes could include the support teachers received from their colleagues, heads and department heads. They were much less likely to have a positive opinion of it when they taught more deprived pupils. A similar split was revealed over opinions of pupil behaviour.

Professor Day said: "These challenges are persistent over time. It is the drip, drip factor that leads to a higher risk of ill health because your resistance is eroded. If government is serious about raising standards and retaining high-quality teachers, it has to take into account these findings.

"Any business the size of a secondary school would have a personnel support structure in place. Yet schools don't. Why?"

The report also highlighted the need for teachers to be given support and training throughout their career. One of the surprising findings was that teachers in the first seven years of their careers are more likely to improve pupils' results. It found that 80 per cent of teachers in their first seven years produced value-added national test results at or above the expected level. This compared with 68 per cent for those with eight to 23 years' experience, and 59 per cent for those with 24 years or more.

Professor Pam Sammons, one of the researchers, said: "These (older) teachers are likely to have greater professional responsibilities, be the parents of teenagers and have to care for elderly relatives. But they get much less support than newly qualified teachers with less complicated lives."

As a 54-year-old, Helen Saunders understands well the pressures more experienced teachers can face. "At my stage you don't have the stamina of young teachers. You get tired more quickly. Teaching can be quite physical, you have to carry a lot of things."

But the psychology teacher at Hampstead school, north London, was surprised that the study has shown this can lead to poorer exam results.

Ms Saunders, a NUT health and safety adviser, also thinks the physical health of more experienced teachers, particularly of women, is a major factor.

"When you hit 45-plus the body doesn't quite work as well, so you may have slight medical problems that can affect the way you do your job. For women the menopause is a very difficult time, particularly if you get forgetful."

David Grant has 34 years' experience in the classroom. He has the know-how and uses it to deliver some of the best results in the large West Yorkshire secondary where he works. But the film and media teacher can understand why teachers at his stage in their careers could be less likely to deliver good exam results than their younger colleagues.

"You are comparing very tired people with people who still have a lot of youthful energy," said the 56-year-old.

It can also take older teachers longer to learn new skills. "In the last 10 years there has been an enormous amount of change," he said. On-the-job training should help but, according to Mr Grant: "Teachers of a certain vintage can be overlooked for courses because people think they know it all."

The findings of the Variations in Teachers' Work and Lives (VITAE) project are expected to be published in a book called Teachers Matter (May 2007)

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