School inspectors are the PITS

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Teachers are turning to psychologists to help them cope with the stress and anxiety of school inspections.

Pre-inspection tension syndrome, or PITS, is affecting increasing number of teachers. At one primary school six members of staff, including the head, were given psychological help.

This week psychologists will be urged to back proposals that schools should have access to their own educational psychologist before, during and after Ofsted inspections.

Ofsted is reducing the waiting time for inspections, and criticises some education authorities and schools for increasing the pressure on teachers by holding dummy inspections.

According to psychologists, teachers face stress and anxiety because of the long wait for the inspectors to arrive, the presence and style of the inspectors, the lack of feedback, and the wait for the final report.

Occupational psychologist Joshua Fox said: "I work with industry and in any performance review analysis like this you look at how to make it positive: an approach that says there are problems, let's see how they occur, but without making it personal. Schools inspections look at the individual teacher as the problem, rather than the mix that makes the school. The idea of inspecting schools is a good idea. It is the style that is the problem. Psychologists could clearly advise Ofsted on how to recruit, train and brief inspectors to carry out properly planned, supportive and constructive inspections."

He worked for 14 months with a head who had been severely affected by the inspection. He also saw five other teachers at the school, two of whom have stopped working.

"At this school there was a meeting with staff the week before, supposedly designed to reassure them, but it generated even higher levels of anxiety, fear and incomprehension."

Symptoms included insomnia, tiredness, depression, anxiety and loss of confidence.

The most important message for teachers seems to be not to take it personally. Mr Fox said: "Teaching like anything else is a role, a part we play, and they need to separate themselves from the part they play at school so it is not the 'essential me' that is being attacked."

Professor Sheila Wolfendale of East London University said: "It is the pre-inspection stress which is most stressful. It is absolutely normal for people to feel anxiety. The problems come when critical stress levels are reached.

"Schools are put through so may pre-inspection hoops, it calls into question the whole of the process. I favour stronger emphasis on more local expertise being included in appraisals."

Professor Wolfendale, co-convenor of a workshop on the subject at this week's conference of the Association of Educational Psychologists, said: "Psychologists should play a greater part, either as team members or be brought in more by schools, pre, post and during inspections."

An Ofsted spokesman said: "We have always acknowledged that being inspected is stressful, but it is necessary because education needs to be accountable and because inspection has uncovered serious problems.

"Schools and local education authorities bring a lot of unnecessary pressure on themselves by getting in a stew about inspections, worrying about it for months in advance. We deplore practice inspections. They cause double the stress on teachers and serve no purpose. We are intending to reduce the period of notice, so they don't have a whole year to worry about it."