Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Tragic Consequences of Teacher Stress

On Wednesday evening I received a call from BBC Radio York. It was the kind of request I get from time to time; would I be interviewed on their breakfast show the following day about teacher stress? 

That day there had been the inquest of a Harrogate teacher, David Charlesworth, who had tragically set fire to himself because of anxiety about pupil results. This was one of those events that inevitably precipitates media interest in a subject they are happy to ignore for most of the time. I don't know the details of this case and would not want to comment on it specifically, but what I do know is that teacher suicide, whilst mercifully rare, is steadily rising.

I have commented on this rise before.  Because numbers are small, there tends to be a fluctuation in numbers from year to year but teacher suicides are gradually rising since 2001.(Source - Office for National Statistics)

Whenever there is a suicide the coroner reports on the individual case.  In the case of teachers, work-related stress, and particularly that caused by OFSTED, is becoming a common feature of such reports. 

The fact that some teachers take their own lives because of work shows how serious the consequences of work stress can become. However, we know this is the grim tip of a very large iceberg. We know that thousands of teachers each year become ill because of work-stress. Of these, many choose or are forced to leave the profession through illness; but that is not news.  To hit the headlines something dramatic has to accompany their illness; like a suicide or a serious attack on a pupil.

One fact that does often emerge is that teachers who become seriously ill are viewed as being very conscientious.  They are usually well thought of by those they teach and the school community.  This is true of most other teachers who become ill, not just those who go on to take their own lives.

It is clear that the Government intend, through agencies like OFSTED, to put teachers under immense pressure at work.  The the head of OFSTED, Michael Wilshire, is on record as saying  "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right." 

The Government and OFSTED premise seems to be, put teachers under enough pressure and this will raise standards in schools.  They are happy to accept that this policy will drive teachers from the profession but I think they believe that they are simply driving out the weak or lazy ones. In fact it is some of the best teachers who become ill and leave.  These are the ones who attempt to chase the impossible demands placed on teachers. 

This policy results in around 38,000 new teachers being required each year to replace those lost.  The estimated cost of such recruitment and training being about £750million.

This policy is a disaster economically, and does not raise standards in schools. The evidence indicates exactly the opposite.  Schools that give high priority to tackling stress have lower staff absence, lower staff turnover and higher standards. (Source - Teacher Wellbeing)  

Worst of all is the human cost. Thousands of teachers are made seriously ill, often wrecking their lives, and in the worst cases this leads to suicides like that of David Charlesworth.

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