It's official:teachers in England are worst off

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Occupational psychologists have long recognised that teachers experience work-related stress every day: workload, pupils' negative attitudes and bad behaviour, lack of promotional prospects, unsatisfactory working conditions and poor relationships with colleagues all contribute to what many see as almost intolerable employment conditions. Performance-related pay doesn't help. As a result, the levels of absenteeism, staff turnover and early retirement are climbing.

And on top of them all comes the extra burden of England's unique inspection regime (see The Issue, page 11). Preparing for a visit from Ofsted and possible negative outcomes undoubtedly adds considerably to workload and stress.

Many people think teachers are doing little more than whinge when they complain about stress; after all, they have much longer holidays than the rest of us, don't they? But new research which compares the stress levels and job satisfaction of teachers in England with their European counterparts appears to find that they have a point: a teacher's lot here is not a happy one compared to theirs.

The research is the result of a unique collaboration between psychologists Konstadina Griva of University College London and Katherine Joekes of Leiden University in the Netherlands. They compared 166 teachers from six secondary schools in the Greater London area with 2,017 teachers from 10 other European countries, measuring job satisfaction, symptoms of stress - including burn-out - and coping strategies. The results were startling, and worrying.

Teachers in England were found to be considerably worse off on practically all measures of job satisfaction and work stress. One might expect higher scores on one or two symptoms, but the fact that, when measured separately, teachers here consistently and significantly outscored their European counterparts is an astonishing finding in the annals of occupational psychology. They scored a third higher on emotional exhaustion, and overall manifested not just more burn-out and physical symptoms of stress, but also reported lower job satisfaction.

The study also establishes that teachers here work significantly longer hours and perceive more demands, environmental risks and lower personal control in their jobs. They use more avoidance-oriented coping strategies, which means they tend to give up trying to confront and solve problems at work, instead keeping their heads down, hoping that problems will go away.

The study concludes that teachers in England are the most stressed in Europe. A key reason could be the difference between us and our neighbours in terms of inspections, assessments and visits. The implication is that there is something about the way we organise education that is driving our teachers round the bend. This is a vital point because it separates the source of the stress from the well-known endemic - and worldwide - difficulties inherent in teaching, such as pupil discipline.

The worrying lack of stress buffers for teachers here, such as social support, suggests there are deep structural problems with the way teaching is being managed and organised that need urgent attention. This research suggests the key way to help teaching now is by rescuing the profession from the Government's obsession with grading teachers and their work.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch (Bantam Press, pound;12.99).

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