Teacher stress soars by 10% across city's schools

THE number of primary, secondary and special school teachers taking sick days because of stress or anxiety has soared by 10 per cent in the past year.

Thursday, 13th October 2016, 10:12 am
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 6:38 pm
Levels of stress have increased in Edinburgh classrooms.

A total of 110 were signed off in 2015-16 – a five-year high – and rising from a low of 88 in 2012-13 and 99 in 2014-15.

Union bosses have warned that the figures are only “scratching the surface” of a much bigger problem, as they report staff struggle under spiralling workloads and rising school rolls.

And they said teachers were frightened to take sick days for fear of being seen as weak.

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It has also emerged that the number of teaching days lost through stress or anxiety rose from 2925 in 2014-15 to 3434 last year – an increase of almost 20 per cent.

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, has blasted the “draconian” rules around sick leave, arguing that staff feel “undermined” by a process that can seem more like a disciplinary than an absence procedure.

He said: “Absence management policies add to the stress of teachers. Teachers are frightened to take time off work when they are not well as they do not want to enter the procedure as it is seen as a weakness.

“Teachers do not like to admit they are stressed and unable to cope so they often seek other reasons for being off sick.

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“Therefore, the numbers quoted are only scratching the surface of the ‘real’ problem.”

Alison Thornton, Edinburgh secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland said escalating stress levels “did not come as a surprise” and were probably “not totally unique” to the Capital.

She added: “Teachers across all of our schools continue to face challenges arising from national and locally driven sources.

“At national level the continuing demands of delivering a Curriculum for Excellence, including Broad General Education and the New Qualifications Arrangements, are just two examples.

“While the number of teachers requires to be maintained across all local authorities, in Edinburgh we continue to have a significant rise in our pupil population at the same time as budgets and all other groups of employees, who support the provision of education, are being greatly reduced through the council’s transformation programme.”

Critics insist teachers are grappling with ongoing overhauls of the education system and rising pupil numbers at a time when budgets and staff are also being slashed.

A raft of controversial changes have been brought in over the last few years, including the introduction of National 4 and 5 qualifications to take the place of Standard Grades.

Highers and Advanced Highers have also been revamped.

Figures released under Freedom of Information laws show the number of sick days taken by teachers due to stress or anxiety has boomed by more than a quarter since 2011-12 – the year after the new “Curriculum for Excellence” was first phased in.

Last year, pupil-staff ratios in Edinburgh reached an eight-year high, while increasing school rolls are expected to lead to overcrowding at a number of top secondaries in the coming decade.

Tory Lothians MSP Miles Briggs branded the latest statistics “extremely worrying”, adding: “Teachers do a fantastic job and need to be better supported when the pressure on them intensifies.

“I hope both the council and the Scottish Government reflect on these findings in order to help those suffering as a result of a heavy workload.”

Daniel Johnson, Labour MSP for Edinburgh Southern, said the figures were just “the tip of the iceberg” – and called on more resources to be handed to schools. He said: “We all know how hard our teachers work. And the cuts from the Scottish Government mean the job is getting harder, because there isn’t the support staff in schools to help teachers deliver the first-rate education we all want for our children.

“We know the real work that has had to be put in by teachers just to make the Curriculum for Excellence work – to make the system work.

“The real way we will reduce teacher workload is by increasing their resources.”

Green Lothian MSP Andy Wightman said the health and wellbeing of teachers were of “paramount importance”.

He added: “Given cuts to council budgets and unsustainable workloads, it’s no surprise that so many teachers need time off to recover from stress.

“The prospect of unnecessary standardised testing won’t be helping. By improving teachers’ working conditions we can improve the learning experience for our young people.

“We need to recruit more staff and reverse the cuts there have been to Additional Support Needs, and we need to challenge the Scottish Government’s plans to meddle further with local funding.”

Council bosses insisted they were “committed to employee well-being” – including tackling work-related stress.

They declined to name any of the schools affected by stressed-out teachers, citing privacy concerns.

A spokeswoman said: “The mental and physical well-being of our teachers is extremely important to us and a number of measures are taken to ensure that staff receive the support they need.

“We regularly consult with teachers to discuss and resolve any concerns and also to provide a confidential counselling service for those who need extra support.”

The Scottish Government did not respond to a request for comment at the time of going to press.