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17th February 2011

Rising Demands and Shrinking Control Drives Teacher Stress

The demands made of employees, and the control they have over how they work, are known to be a key factors in work-related stress.  The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have provided Management Standards for employers to help them tackle stress. They identify six important areas of which Demands and Control are two.

Over the last 20 years, and particularly in the last 10, the balance between demands and control in teachers’ work has changed significantly. Demands have risen sharply driven by the proliferation of both government initiatives and accountability measures.

Teachers now face a multitude of external demands including the National Curriculum, Statutory Assessment, OFSTED, School Performance League Tables, National Strategies, National Challenge, Performance Management, Local Authority Monitoring and Child Protection Procedures.  This list is far from exhaustive and all of these external pressures are subject to regular changes.   These many factors place a relentless pressure on schools. Head teachers feel under pressure to undertake new measures and the demands they pass on to teachers are always increasing.  

This is made worse by the following clause in teacher’s contracts that puts no upper limit on the hours they can be expected to work.

“In addition to the hours a teacher is required to be available for work, a teacher must work such reasonable additional hours as may be necessary to enable the effective discharge of the teacher’s professional duties, including, in particular planning and preparing courses and lessons; and assessing, monitoring, recording and reporting on the learning needs, progress and achievements of assigned pupils.” (School Teachers Pay and Conditions 2010)

This ‘catch all’ clause provides teachers with no protection against being asked to do more and more.  

Whilst demands have been rising at an alarming rate, the autonomy of teachers to exercise judgement in how they do their job has fallen. The content of what is taught has been defined, but much more worrying has been the prescription of how teachers teach.  Teaching methodology has become so tightly defined that a lesson which does not follow a particular structure is likely to be judged unsatisfactory by OFSTED, regardless of the learning taking place.  

Outside the classroom teachers now find themselves engaged in more and more bureaucratic tasks.  In many schools, plans for each and every lesson must be completed following a set format regardless of whether they are helpful to the teacher.  Huge amounts of data on pupil performance are routinely collected consuming hours of teacher time.

Many teachers perceive some of these tasks to be of no value in helping their pupils learn.   They consume time which leaves no time for activities that teachers think are both worthwhile and necessary.  For example, the pastoral support of pupils, which may be essential to their progress, is pushed out by less important tasks.

The conflict created by being forced, against professional judgement, to waste time on the unimportant, whilst having no time for the important, is a major driving force behind teacher stress.  The more conscientious the teacher is, the more stress it may cause. Good teachers worry about what they have not had time to do and the job of a teacher is never complete.  There is always something else that could be done. As a society we must question whether it is better for politicians to decide how teachers do their job rather than for teachers to make those decisions.

So, increasing demands and shrinking control are key drivers of stress in the teaching profession.  However, that is only part of the story; more to come in my next blog.