Increased pay, reduced workloads and long holidays – our schools are excellent places to work, insists the government. So why, amid reports of depression, breakdown and suicide, is teaching now rated one of the most stressful occupations in the country? And with 40 per cent of staff set to leave their jobs within five years, what can be done to ease the strain in Britain’s education system?
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.’