Handling the pressure


As the new term gets fully underway, Julian Stanley looks at the pressures facing Scottish teachers this year, not least in handling the ongoing curriculum and exam changes.

Teachers in Scotland continue to grapple with the task of implementing new national qualifications. This summer teenagers sat the very first National 4 and National 5 exams, which replaced the Standard Grade. They produced record results, which will please the Scottish government – but the road to get there has been far from smooth.

Education ministers were criticised for hastily pushing through the new tests last winter, sparking anger from teachers who felt there was not enough time (a matter of months) to prepare their students for the spring exams.

This prompted the Scottish government to fork out £5 million to help train staff to manage the transition. This is a healthy sum, and the kind of support which is readily welcomed.

But celebrations of the good results quickly faded, as Scottish teachers have continued to demand more support to deliver the next phase of reforms, the new Higher exams which will be sat by some pupils next year. The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association has warned the Scottish government to avoid a repeat of the “unbearable workloads” that were experienced when introducing the Nationals this summer.

So will the Scottish government step up and support its teachers? Only time will tell, but it is clear teachers are feeling the weight of exams. As curriculum reforms hit schools both sides of the border, Teacher Support Network recently put out a web poll asking: is it fair to judge a teacher’s performance on their students’ exam results? The overwhelming reaction was no – with 88 per cent saying it was unfair.

But is it too simplistic to simply argue that it’s not right to judge teachers solely on their students’ outcomes? We know how important exams are, particularly for teachers teaching at secondary level. That’s not to say it is the only factor teachers should be judged on, and of course the government has a responsibility to nurture well-rounded young adults who have important transferable skills to enter the jobs market.

A vital factor in all this is the impact of a teacher’s health on students’ learning? If students are taught by sick or preoccupied teachers, not performing at their best, how well can they be expected to perform in the exam hall?

We feel there is a real need for extensive research in this area. Existing studies already suggest a link between the best teachers delivering top SATs results in England and Wales, and the negative impact on students through the use of supply teachers when regular staff are off sick for prolonged periods.

This year’s international teaching survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that issues relating to job satisfaction and wellbeing are shared by teachers across the globe.

Although Scotland was not included in the survey, the Educational Institute of Scotland says it mirrors findings in a recent survey of its members. General secretary Larry Flanagan said: “It is clear that teachers around the world, and here in Scotland, continue to face significant workload pressures which are having a negative impact on both job satisfaction and teachers’ health and wellbeing.

“Support from senior management and employers also continues to be viewed as extremely important by teachers in the countries covered by the (OECD) survey.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the new exam system being foisted on students, parents and schools, it is essential for the policy-makers behind the changes to help those on the front-line delivering them. 

The Scottish government, and its counterpart in Westminster, needs to continue to ensure school leaders and teachers have enough time and resources not only to prepare their students for new exam systems, but to ensure staff are sufficiently trained to guide the young people through the transition.

Teachers who feel unsupported and unable to turn to their colleagues or senior leaders will only feel the burden of change more severely. And what would be the result of this? It could mean students are not prepared for their exams; young people at a critical moment in their school career could miss out on going to university or commencing a job of their dreams.

It could also mean schools fall in school rankings and teachers who are seen to underperform on results day could in extreme cases lose their jobs. Behind the scenes the stresses of workload can also lead to ill-health for teaching staff. In the last two years, Teacher Support Network has had nearly 11,000 calls to our Support Line regarding work-related stress, anxiety, depression and health.

It all comes down to support. An organisation cannot guarantee when or if a member of staff will fall ill or be overwhelmed by increasing workloads and work-related stress, but it can put in place important mechanisms and practices to catch someone when they fall and establish a healthy environment to promote a healthy workforce.

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561.


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