Not so healthy or wealthy. . . but why?

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
Scottish teachers lack support from their employers, a situation that must be remedied before schools can improve, argues Peter Wright

It was as serious a case of mistaken identity as I have ever known. The document I held had all the hallmarks of a Scottish Executive publication: pictures of smiling children of primary or lower secondary age; shots of teachers relaxing together in staffrooms; the cover showing a pupil listening carefully to a teacher; the title, Creating the Conditions for Ambitious, Excellent Schools.

The extent of my self-delusion came when I glanced at the executive summary before placing it in the "might get around to reading it later file". It read: "Central to this submission is the evidence provided by research into the wellbeing of teachers in Scotland." That was quite arresting: Scottish Executive documents rarely refer to the experiences of teachers.

The second paragraph, however, really did it: "If all of Scotland's schools are to be ambitious and excellent, then the conditions which allow this to happen must be present. Evidence suggests that these may not be in place."

Whaaat! For a moment, I suspected some elaborate April Fool. On further reading, the document proved to be packed with information which classroom teachers have known for years and which, for that reason, would never be found within a million miles of a Scottish Executive publication.

We are told that:

* two-thirds of teachers report personal problems which affect their work;

* more than three-quarters of teachers believe psychological stress at work has a knock-on effect on their physical well-being;

* accessing support is difficult;

* three-quarters of teachers are unaware of services provided by their employer and are concerned about confidentiality.

At this point, having sat down in surprise, I noticed the footer "Teacher Support Scotland", and epiphany set in. This organisation is an offshoot of a parent body which provides support services for teachers in England, most usefully, perhaps, a phone helpline.

It is likely, therefore, that the Scottish Executive will find fault with the document's findings on the grounds of partiality. However, the report is based on independent research by Glasgow University's Healthy Working Lives Group. This study was the most comprehensive inquiry into the well-being of teachers in Scotland - indeed, the only such inquiry.

It would be easy to write off this report as the product of an organisation with an axe to grind. Easy but wrong. The Glasgow University research confirms what teachers already know: teaching is not unique as a profession whose members face high levels of stress. However, as a workforce, teachers practise their craft in isolation and suffer from the often self-imposed demands membership of their profession implies.

In surveys of local authority employees' absences, for example, teachers frequently emerge as the group with the lowest rate of absenteeism. Even when suffering from quite significant illness, many, if not most, teachers are reluctant to take time off because they know how that will affect their colleagues and pupils.

The isolation teachers face also makes them reluctant to seek help from employers. One statistic quoted in this report compares teachers and health workers. More than 90 per cent of health workers retiring early due to ill-health used occupational health services. The corresponding figure for teachers was 10 per cent.

Teachers often feel the assistance they are entitled to ends with tea and sympathy behind their headteacher's door. Those who do contact their local authority human resources sections are often astonished at the support on offer. HR officers are acutely aware of the legal and financial consequences of a failure to discharge the employer's duty of care in a way most heads are not.

My union, the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, lent logistical support to the Glasgow University report on which this document is based.

That does not necessarily indicate full agreement with all the recommendations of the ensuing report, however.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Scottish teachers do not receive enough support from their employers. It is equally clear that improving these services can only benefit all those with an interest in school improvement in Scotland.

The local authorities and the Scottish Executive must act to enhance that provision across Scotland. If nothing else, this report provides a valuable basis for talks from which such action might emerge. Peter Peacock's representatives on the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers should bring forward proposals for further discussion.

Peter Wright is secretary of the SSTA in West Lothian.

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