||Miércoles 15 de Octubre de 2008, Ip nº 250
|Depressed, stressed: teachers in crisis
Por Amelia Hill
Jo Duckworth's school in Lancashire has a strict 'handover' policy. Teachers must personally deliver each child into the care of their parent or carer at the end of every school day. The aim is to ensure the child's safety. But for Duckworth, at one stage, that moment became torture.
'I had two eight-year-olds in my class, one of whom was probably being sexually abused by her parents and the other was seriously self-harming,' she said. 'Both were being looked at by social services but neither investigations were sufficiently progressed to remove the children concerned.
'During the school day, I was monitoring these children on behalf of social services. I had to engage them in all sorts of conversations, spending hours keeping a detailed log of everything we'd said, and making myself available for them at any time of the school day if they wanted to talk - despite not being given any professional training or guidance.
'Then at the end of the school day, I'd have to hand these children over to their parents, despite knowing what they were almost certainly going home to. I'd torture myself every night. It was torment. I couldn't get them out of my mind.'
Both children were eventually removed from their families by social services. But this was just one example of the stress the 37-year-old Duckworth has experienced during her 10 years as a teacher. Four years ago, she had a nervous breakdown caused, she said, by a range of issues but essentially due to the uniquely stressful nature of the teaching profession.
'It's the endless stream of new government initiatives, the targets, the constant Ofsted monitoring,' she said. 'But because you know it's the children who benefit, you end up pushing yourself to excel in everything that's thrown at you. Of course that's impossible, so you end up feeling like you're never able to do anything well enough. You don't see that you've worked yourself into such a state of exhaustion that you're too tired to benefit the children any more. You end up with your self-confidence and self-esteem on the floor.'
After three months off work, Duckworth returned to her teaching post. 'I came back despite knowing the pressures and stress would still be there,' she said. 'Non-teachers don't realise what it means to be a teacher. Teachers can't step back and say, "It's only work." I've had personal relationships break down because of the hours I have to work every day, seven days a week.
'So why did I come back? I came back because, despite everything, when school starts this Wednesday, I'm going to be on cloud nine. Once the classroom door has closed and I'm alone with my pupils, it's the best feeling ever. You see their smiles and their little shoulders go up when they start to understand something. And when a child comes up to you after a class and says, "Thank you", you don't care - for a moment - about the paperwork and the stress and the nightmare lying in wait on the other side of the classroom door. It all becomes worth it.'
The new academic year should bring with it a revitalised teaching staff, but many teachers began 2008 with a sense of dread. In staffrooms across the country, 2008 was nicknamed the 'meltdown year' because of the number of policy and curriculum changes the government had implemented, including the introduction of the new diplomas, revisions to A-levels and the new secondary school curriculum.
Les Turner is one man who decided enough was enough. After 38 years in the education system, 20 years of which he spent as a headteacher of Freckleton Primary School in Preston, he has retired early - defeated, he said, by the refusal of the government to deal with the issue of stress: 'What we have is a government that is doing the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, while asking, "what iceberg?". I'm one of many experienced heads who are retiring early and there aren't people who want to replace us. I'm angry and as a profession we should be getting angry.'
Teachers' stress is not a new problem. It is almost 10 years since the first case was brought by a teacher suing the government for the stress of work. Muriel Benson, a head of year at a secondary school in the Wirral, won £47,000 compensation for illness caused by stress in an out-of-court settlement in 1999. Since then, the NUT has backed more than 90 cases where teachers have won compensation.
Instead of conditions improving since Benson's case, studies have consistently found that teachers are among the most stressed workers in Britain. In a survey published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology in 2005, teaching was ranked as the second most stressful job out of 26 occupations, including, and exceeding, that of ambulance drivers. The pressure, according to YouGov research, commissioned by Teachers TV, has led half of all teachers to consider leaving the profession.
'Classroom life has a uniquely stressful nature,' said Stan Gilmore, of the Institute of Counselling. 'Teachers can never drop their guard and are required to exercise a level of unremitting control over upwards of 30 pupils.
'Most teachers, if they are honest, will testify that at some point in their teaching career they have encountered difficulties in coping with the relentless pressure to maintain order, leading to the kind of emotional exhaustion colloquially known as a "mental breakdown".'
John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, is anxious about the impact of such pressure. He pointed to the suicide, last July, of headteacher Jed Holmes who was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning on the eve of an Ofsted inspection. Colleagues at Hampton Hargate Primary school, Peterborough, said the school's exam results had dipped slightly following an intake of extra pupils and that Holmes had been diagnosed with depression linked to work stress.
'The human consequences of this excessive stress on teachers are serious and wide-ranging,' said Bangs. 'They can include physical symptoms but also mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, burn-out and an increased risk of suicide. Behavioural consequences can include an increased drug or alcohol intake.'
The government is acutely aware of the issue. The Health and Safety Executive is targeting education as one of the top five priority sectors for tackling workplace stress. But the signs are that it has yet to succeed. Last year, a survey carried out by the teachers' counselling service, the Teacher Support Network (TSN) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that demands on staff and their time had increased over the past five years. Seven in every 10 teachers and lecturers said their health had suffered because of the job. Among school leaders, three-quarters said their health was affected.
Two-thirds of callers to the TSN helpline reported work-related problems, including stress, anxiety and depression. This contrasts with the private sector where on average about a third of callers to counselling services have work-related concerns.
Les Marshall, director of the Schools Advisory Service, the largest independent provider of teacher absence insurance in the UK said: 'One third of teachers take sick leave every year as a result of stress caused by new government initiatives, targets and the impact of being constantly monitored.
'We're so disappointed by the failure of the government to tackle this issue effectively, that we're trying to tackle it ourselves. Three years ago, we introduced stress counsellors to visit claimants at home. Those claimants who have this service, return to work three weeks earlier but it still isn't tackling the issue at source. We still need to stop teachers getting into this state.'
So why are teachers so stressed? The school day, after all, is shorter than most office working days and when teachers' longer holidays are taken into account, the time they work annually compares favourably with similarly paid jobs.
In addition, thanks to new laws, teachers now do fewer administration tasks. There is a strict statutory limit on the amount of cover for colleagues, and every teacher now has dedicated preparation time in the week.
Teachers, however, maintain little has changed. A survey by the School Teachers' Review Body, which reports to the Prime Minister and to the Secretary of State for Education on the statutory pay and conditions of school teachers in England and Wales, shows primary teachers work 52.2 hours a week, and secondary teachers work 49.9 hours. Most spend fewer than 20 of those hours teaching. The rest, they say, is spent on tasks that should not be part of their jobs.
The discrepancy between government assurances and reality is also seen in Scotland, where a maximum 35-hour week was set for teachers under the McCrone Agreement in 2001. Last year, however, a survey by the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, found more than 60 per cent of teachers believed the agreement had not alleviated workload pressures while 37 per cent believed it had actually increased them. Research carried out in 2005 by the General Teaching Council, among others, identified issues of excessive workload as the principal frustration to teachers in carrying out their duties, in spite of contractual changes. It is a finding supported by a TUC league table of unpaid overtime, published in 2005, that showed teachers carried out the largest amount of unpaid overtime in the UK, at an average of 11 hours 36 minutes per week.
Such pressure has knock-on effects. Teachers are not only leaving the profession early but fewer are entering it. One recent study found that 40 per cent of teachers expect to have left teaching in the next five years.
It is more than 10 years since Tony Blair's famous 'Education, Education, Education' speech, when he pledged to put classrooms at the top of the political agenda. There is no doubt that there has been a major financial investment since Labour came to power. Almost £1.2bn is now spent on education every week. The core 'per pupil' funding has risen by 55 per cent in real terms - or £1,660 more per year per child.
There are now about 35,000 more teachers than in 1997 - reducing pupil-teacher ratios and class sizes. Teachers' pay has risen by 18 per cent in real terms, and heads have had a pay increase of 27 per cent.
Another quiet revolution has been the huge increase in support workers, such as teaching assistants - up by 172,000: an additional workforce bigger than the army, navy and air force put together.
'Let's face facts,' said Kevin Brennan, the children's minister. 'There has never been a better time to be a teacher. Rewind 10 years - wages were poor; working hours going up; class sizes were rising and crumbling facilities were simply accepted. Those days are over.
'No one has ever disputed that teaching is a rewarding but challenging job. We have transformed the school workforce culture - working with unions to cut workload; better pay and rewards; to free up teachers and heads; and give staff outstanding career development.'
Brennan points to a report released last Thursday by the independent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, one of the world's largest sources of comparable statistics, and economic and social data, that praises the government's reforms.
'Ofsted said last year that reforms have resulted in a "revolutionary shift in the culture of the school workforce",' he added. 'There is more to do but research shows that teachers feel their own professional status is starting to improve after decades of decline.'
But while most teachers support government initiatives - such as the national curriculum, SATs tests in years two and six, schools inspections and league tables - the pace and manner of change has, they say, caused problems.
'There is a surfeit of government initiatives, pressures of assessments targets and inspections,' said a spokesman for the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers. 'Our vocation has become a political football.'
Faye Craster, is a 22-year-old science teacher from north London who regularly works a 65-hour week. In July, at her north London comprehensive, Craster bade farewell to 25 of her 70 teaching colleagues, many of whom cited stress as reasons for leaving.
'The school is desperate to improve its league-table ranking. The student intake isn't changing, so the teachers just have to work themselves silly,' she said. 'Time I would like to spend planning is spent on "banned" tasks such as data input, bulk photocopying and cleaning.
'This has been the hardest year of my life,' she added. 'If I was earning £45,000 a year, I wouldn't mind so much. I'm not getting half that.'
Craster says she will only teach for one more year, then she will take her science and communication skills into academia or industry. 'Maybe I'm being selfish, but I'm not staying for the love of the children or the school,' she said. 'Something has to go, and because I can't do a 65-hour week every week, it's going to be me.'
Staffroom stress in numbers
· Half of all teachers have thought about quitting because of stress. Lack of respect from pupils, heavy workload, and dealing with 'pushy parents' are all blamed, according to a YouGov survey in 2007.
· Research by the Teacher Support Network in 2007 found that 71 per cent of Scottish teachers felt their job was ruining their health, with stress, exhaustion, mood swings and poor sleep patterns common.
· One in three teachers has turned to alcohol, drugs, smoking and binge-eating because of pressures at work. Some have had suicidal thoughts, according to a study carried in Nottingham last year.
· The number of teachers retiring early has doubled in recent years. Last year 10,270 left the profession early compared with 5,580 in 1998/1999. The figures were revealed in a parliamentary question. Evidence suggested stress, poor pupil behaviour and repeated government initiatives prompted their decision.
· More than 30 per cent of headteachers plan to retire by 2011, research from the General Teaching Council in England revealed in 2006. The study found that fewer than 5 per cent of teachers aspired to become a head within five years.
· In 2004 it was estimated that teachers took more than 200,000 days off due to job-related stress, anxiety or depression. The Schools Advisory Service claimed that the annual cost to schools of this absenteeism was more than £19m.
|| 31/08/2008. The Guardian.