Graduates considering a career in teaching should opt for primary if they want to avoid nervous breakdowns and burnout, new research suggests. Secondary teachers feel condemned to a stressful existence working for incompetent bosses in dingy classrooms.
Alex McEwen and William Thompson from Queen's University, Belfast, surveyed a random sample of 196 female and 263 male teachers from primary and secondary schools.
Primary teachers of both sexes seemed far more contented about almost every aspect of their jobs.
"One of the most disturbing conclusions is that principals in post-primary schools receive surprisingly low levels of respect from both pupils and teachers - the decisions they make are often perceived as inconsistent and ill-informed," say the researchers.
While two-thirds of primary teachers enjoyed a good working relationship with their heads, secondary teachers were more likely to doubt their head's ability to make sensible decisions and to believe that their head was not respected either by staff or pupils. More than half of secondary teachers considered that their head did not have the skills necessary for chairing meetings.
The survey shows that primary staff suffer less from shortage of time and are generally happier with their pupils' progress. Twice as many primary as secondary teachers were satisfied with their children's results, and two-thirds of secondary teachers said that their pupils' poor performance was a major source of stress.
Primary teachers were also happier about the physical environment and general atmosphere of their schools, and experienced a greater sense of autonomy and control over their work. The pattern is repeated in feelings about colleagues, parents and the community. More than half the secondary teachers said they could not count on support from parents, and many of them stated that they found their colleagues as draining as their pupils. Fifty-four per cent of primary teachers felt they could rely on parents' support, while the majority of secondary teachers were "ambiguous about whether parents were supportive or obstructive".
Secondary teachers were more exercised about pay, more likely to see themselves as poorly paid and more likely to report this as a stress-inducing factor. Eighty per cent of primary teachers felt secure in their jobs, compared to 66 per cent of secondary teachers.
"After the National Curriculum: teacher stress and morale" by Alex McEwen and William Thompson, School of Education, Queen's University, Belfast. Published in Research in Education No 57, Manchester University Press