Heads need training in work-life balance

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
Award-winning headteacher calls on schools minister to support leaders on the edge. Jonathan Milne reports

an award-winning headteacher has personally challenged the schools minister to address the stress and emotional burnout which she says is forcing heads into hospital or early retirement.

Rosie Pugh asked Jim Knight at a conference in Birmingham whether the Government would provide training and support to help heads deal with the mounting pressure and workload.

Mrs Pugh, 51, head of Castledyke school in north Lincolnshire, won primary headteacher of the year at the 2001 Teaching Awards. But she told The TES she was fed up with watching brilliant and accomplished school leaders collapse with stress-related illnesses and retiring while they were in their mid-fifties.

"There's always at least one high-profile head who goes down mentally every year," she said. "The rest of the staff see it and think, 'Why would I want to do that job?'"

The Teacher Support Network dealt with 27 teachers who were addicted to alcohol or prescription drugs last year. "I try not to worry too much," Mrs Pugh said. "I try to enjoy my children. Sometimes I see heads who have lost the ability to laugh and have a joke. We are our own worst enemies. We need training in work-life balance and how to manage stress."

Mrs Pugh said there is intense pressure, especially on younger heads, to get high test and Ofsted results. "I'm a confident person and I'll tell someone to get stuffed if necessary," she said. "But if I was a younger person, would I have the courage and confidence?

"In headship, you're asked to deal with stuff where you've got no training - and you've got to swim because sinking isn't an option. There are too many kids and staff depending on you."

While workforce reforms in the past few years have helped teachers to reduce their hours, heads and deputy heads are working ever longer. Last year, official data showed primary heads' working weeks had increased slightly to 53.5 hours on average, while secondary heads worked 65.1 hours a week.

A government-backed study this year said heads were spending all their time on mundane tasks such as unblocking toilets instead of strategic leadership, and a National Association of Head Teachers survey last year found heads were too tired for sex.

John Illingworth, a former headteacher from Nottingham, has spoken publicly of his mental breakdown under the pressure of workload. Another head became depressed after a critical inspection and took his own life.

Mr Knight acknowledged heads' growing workload and said the Government was trying to prioritise which paperwork was vital and which could be disregarded.

A spokesman said that the Department for Education and Skills was working with its partners in the unions to ensure all school leaders could be effective in raising standards for all while enjoying the right work-life balance.

"We are determined to reduce burdens and rationalise bureaucracy for schools," he said.

Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), has written to Mrs Pugh saying he was trying to improve the public image of school leaders but that the media did not always reflect that image.

He said the college offers support for headteachers' emotional well-being and work-life balance as part of its National Professional Qualification for Headship as well as a grant, which some heads use to pay for peer and professional support.

He believes collaboration is the key. "Headteachers sometimes feel a sense of isolation when dealing with difficult situations or workload pressures,"

he said. "By networking and nurturing relationships with their peers, not only is their sense of isolation reduced but they also discover and can share practical solutions."

He also recommends alternative school leadership models such as co-headship, more effective use of school business managers and federations of schools, to reduce pressure on individual heads.

NCSL has been trying to move away from the "hero head" model of school leadership and instead emphasise that responsibility should be distributed among a number of senior staff.

Mrs Pugh said talk is easy, but there is no realistic alternative to the "hero head" because somebody has to take ultimate responsibility for a school and the children in it.

"I don't feel like anybody's hero," she said. "Most of us feel like washed out old women at the end of the day."

Mr Munby and the national college are well-intentioned, she said, but despite their efforts, the pressure on heads has grown worse in the past few years.

"Things do get tough," she said. "You asked me about bad times - I'm lucky that I have a positive nature, so I never dwell on them. Sheer tiredness at the end of term is generally my own personal problem.

"The amount of conflict within the job is sometimes an issue that worries me - aggressive parents, aggressive children, battles with agencies and other groups in order to get through bureaucracy or to gain support for essential work.

"I feel that the computer already dominates too much of my life. My glass of wine each evening seems a lot more attractive at the moment."

Heavy schedules

Average hours per week worked: Secondary heads 65.1

Secondary deputies 61

Secondary department heads 51.5

Secondary teachers 49.1

Primary heads 53.5

Primary deputies 53.4

Primary teachers 50.1

Figures: Office of Manpower Economics 2006

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