Reducing stress is no sweat, says fresh start head

26th May 2000 at 01:00
TIM Gallagher says that he isn't stressed. But perhaps he ought to be, for he is head of the King's school in Wolverhampton - part of the Government's Fresh Start programme which has seen three heads make sudden exits recently.

But King's is different in a number of ways. In other Fresh Start schools teachers were cleared out, but Tim Gallagher kept the staff from the old Regis school. Changes had to be made, but these were the teachers who knew the children best. This in itself reduced stress as staff had been fearful for their jobs.

Tim's next task was to address the long-hours culture.

"Too many meetings were running for an hour-and-a-half or more at the end of the school day," he says. "After a full day of teaching that was too much, I put a limit of an hour on meetings and in one case - at the end of a long day when the staff were tired - I just cancelled the meeting."

He instituted return-to-work interviews after teachers had been off school through sickness.

"This was partly courtesy, partly checking on the absence. But these interviews have picked up at least two cases of stress," he says. The early warning enabled the school to use Wolverhampton's occupational health service. Stress counselling was arranged.

Tim Gallagher is using the performance-management cycle to institute a regular staff-development reviw which "should celebrate staff strengths and identify their needs. We've instituted a 'no-blame' culture," he says. "Anybody can make a mistake, the key question is how the situation is dealt with."

But stresses will still be there, possibly caused by factors beyond the classroom. Some staff will need to take time off.

"When that happens don't expect people to come straight back," he says. "Ease them back into school life. Someone may be fit enough to walk around but not ready to face the challenge of a class."

Good management won't eliminate stress, but it will alert heads and governors to individuals at risk. The cost of doing nothing can be a broken life for the teacher concerned. But authorities should also bear in mind the increased premiums which are likely to result as insurers react to the flood of claims. And pound;300,000 isn't the limit. A younger teacher would get more - half-a-million-pound settlements could well be awarded in the future.

Some employers still treat stress in much the same way as they would treat lightning - as a random occurrence that no-one can do anything about. But millions of work days are lost each year through stress and teaching is widely acknowledged to be one of the most stressful occupations. A head-in-the-sand approach is liable to prove expensive.

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