Stress is serious stuff

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Bad behaviour in schools and excessive workload make teachers ill and must be tackled long term, writes Paul Howard Davies

In 2003, a survey of stress among teachers in Wrexham, carried out by the local education authority, found that 30 per cent of them dreaded going to work. Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) said their workload was impossible, 77 per cent felt fatigued, 65 per cent said work adversely affected their home life and 30 per cent said they were very stressed.

The major causes of stress were excessive workload and pupil indiscipline.

Poor pay, inability to take breaks and poor management also featured. The cost of reported stress absence for this small but not untypical authority was more than pound;200,000 annually. As stress-related absence is often under-reported, I estimate the real cost may well have been Pounds 500,000.

Wrexham council is to be applauded for carrying out the survey and it has used the results as a basis to tackle work-related stress in schools. However, the problem is now so bad across the UK that the Health and Safety Executive has expressed concern about teachers' high stress levels.

The Westminster government, in its drive to raise standards, realised it could not squeeze any more out of teachers. So if standards were going to be raised, the excessive workload had to be tackled and the workforce remodelled.

So what can be done to reduce teacher stress? There are at least six issues that need attention: workload, pupil indiscipline, class size, environment, resources and support.

The national workload agreement must be fully implemented in all schools.

It is crucial that the substantial amounts of money going into schools to deliver the agreement are used to remodel the workforce and reduce workload. It must not be siphoned off elsewhere. Administrative tasks should have already been transferred from teachers to support staff.

Teachers should rarely cover for absent colleagues, if at all. The 10 per cent guaranteed non-contact time, due in September, will be a life-saver for many teachers.

Schools have got to look at the work-life balance seriously, and there is huge scope to streamline planning and assessment by the intelligent use of information technology and learning assistants.

A good start on pupil indiscipline would be for all schools to adopt the behaviour management policy developed by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and the Secondary Heads' Association.

Staff should be offered on-going training in dealing with difficult pupils.

There must be zero tolerance of verbal and physical abuse of staff. Serious and persistent disruption must be tackled by using a measured and graduated exclusion policy. There must be more on and off-site pupil-referral units. Risk assessments on pupils with records of violence and malicious allegations are a must, and abusive or violent parents should be banned from the school site. CCTV cameras also cut violence and vandalism.

In Wales, great strides have been made to reduce key stage 1 and KS2 classes to no more than 30 pupils. But at KS3, classes of 38 in science and 42 in maths are not unknown. The reduction in Welsh pupil numbers of some 64,000 over the next decade will be an opportunity to move towards class sizes of 20-25.

Meanwhile, teachers and pupils should be working in a modern, bright, colourful, clean, warm environment. Standards of cleaning and maintenance should be at the same levels enjoyed by the public in supermarkets.

In a recent meeting of the Wrexham schools budget forum, concerns about capitation were expressed by primary, secondary and special schools. There simply is not enough money to buy high-quality teaching and learning resources. There is far more being spent on assessment than resources, and this is wrong.

Finally, consultation with staff, followed by genuine negotiation with accredited teacher-union representatives, is a necessity as it gives teachers some control over their working lives. The work of Teacher Support Cymru must be encouraged. Intimidation and workplace bullying have to be removed.

New initiatives should go through a workload "screen" - not to stop change, but to check the consequences. For example, some schools have moved from a five-period to a six-period day, meaning more pupils and more marking, reporting, recording and assessment for teachers.

Teaching has always been a stressful job, and with multiple targets and increasingly needy pupils it has not got any easier. However, we have to reduce the pressures to an acceptable level so that most teachers can have a long and fulfilling career, free from "dread", with some enjoyment.

Teachers who feel competent, with a strong sense of support from colleagues, working in a healthy school with a strong sense of purpose and direction, with a rewarding awareness of their own development and able to have some influence on the decisions which affect them at work, are going to raise standards far more effectively than a thousand externally-set targets.

Paul Howard Davies is a teacher at Rhosnesni high school, Wrexham

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