Inside the 'Samaritans for teachers' hotline that shows just how stressful the classroom can be

Workload emerges as teachers' biggest complaint in calls to Education Support Partnership's 24-hour-a-day-service

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The Independent Online

The bell rings just after 3pm announcing the end of the school day. And it’s a safe bet this will be followed just a few minutes later by calls to the emergency hotline number for teachers.

According to the Education Support Partnership – which provides a Samaritans-style 24-hour-a-day service – its busiest time is between 3pm and 4pm as teachers reflect on the problems that have emerged during the day.

“Our average caller is a white British woman, in her late 30s to 40s, from London, working as a classroom teacher at a foundation primary school. She will be heterosexual and have no disabilities,” says the ESP. She may start by talking about her financial worries. Soon, though, it will emerge she is suffering from stress.

The numbers are growing. Its website says: “We had more than 29,000 calls and emails to our counsellors between September 2013 and August 2014 – a 29 per cent increase on the previous year.”

Workload emerges as the teachers’ biggest complaint – cited by an overwhelming 91 per cent of callers to the hotline. This is increasingly leading to mental health issues – 88 per cent of callers said they were suffering stress.

Julian Stanley, the chief executive of ESP – which provides support for everyone involved in education, including college lecturers and classroom assistants – is keen to avoid painting too alarmist a picture of the profession and possibly putting off new entrants.

“I had a great time in my career. What we want is for them to have much help in the way that they do their jobs and for them to be well supported,” he told The Independent.

“As a profession, though, it has the highest levels of reported stress and the highest number of absence days in the economy as a whole – which means many schools are relying on supply teachers to replace them.”

He cites the four main areas of concern as excessive workload, planning for retirement, behaviour and bullying. 

He is also worried by what he calls an “experience exodus” from schools. “There are some colleagues who really don’t want to do it [the job] past 50,” he said. “Also, you as a 25 or 26-year-old aren’t necessarily going to stay in the job.”

That – combined with financial pressures forcing schools to recruit less expensive newly qualified teachers – means that new recruits have less experience to tap into to show them the ropes.

That presents a problem says ESP. Its research showed that 34 per cent of all newly qualified staff only planned to spend between one to five years in the classroom. To combat this, the ESP has launched a campaign, using the hashtag #NotQuittingTeaching, which teachers can access to discuss ways of dealing with problems that emerge in their classrooms.

It is the issue of mental health, though, that Mr Stanley finds the most worrying – as well as the 88 per cent of callers who say they are suffering from stress, 72 per cent say they have experienced anxiety and 45 per cent say they are suffering from depression. Yet just 8 per cent of schools have a published wellbeing policy for their staff.

“Our research already shows there could be a link between a teacher’s health and their students’ outcomes,” he says. “We need government and school leaders to understand how important it is to ensure our teaching staff are physically and mentally fit.”

Financial worries are also adding to the stress with cuts to pensions and the squeeze on teachers’ pay – in line with all public sector employees. “They are now emerging in a middle-class occupation where you wouldn’t have expected it, you’re finding financial pressures come to the fore,” says Mr Stanley.

“Also, what people are saying to us about workload is that is things like the volume of marking, changes to the curriculum that they’re having to cope with. They understand the need to be accountable but the data they have to cope with means the loss of time available to do lesson planning and support work with pupils.”

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We know that unnecessary workload is one of the biggest frustrations for teachers and are working with the profession and education experts to take action of the root causes of preventable workload including looking in more depth at the three issues teachers raised – marking, data management and planning and resources.”

The department is to carry out a large scale survey of workload issues this spring – and then at two-yearly intervals – to try to nip some of the problems in the bud, the spokesman added.