THE record £1.3m paid out in compensation to teachers and college lecturers in the past year is a worrying measure of how seriously things are going wrong in some of Scotland's schools.
In 2012 the proportion of successful claims due to stress doubled from 20% to 40%. There were also several personal injury claims resulting from assaults by pupils, including an award of £81,000 to a teacher who was subjected to several attacks by the same pupil with no risk assessment carried out. This is an unhappy and unacceptable state of affairs in a profession which is still regarded as a vocation by the majority of teachers.
Stress is increasingly reported by staff in a wide variety of employment as a result of cuts which often require the same amount of work to be done by fewer people. There were 32,000 cases of work-related stress in Scotland in 2010-11.
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It is significant, however, that the highest rates were in teaching, along with social work and NHS management. These areas demand a high standard of professionalism and also involve either front-line contact with service users or attempting to meet demand with insufficient resources. When this becomes the norm rather than a short-term challenge, it is inevitable that it will eventually result in physical or mental illness. Because (unlike, for example, a broken leg) stress is a catch-all term which includes a number of debilitating symptoms and because some people are more resilient than others, it can be treated with suspicion.
However, the fact that in the last two years more than 1000 Scottish teachers have called a specialist phoneline set up to help them deal with stress gives an indication of the scale of the problem and must ring alarm bells. Concerns raised by callers to the charity Teacher Support Scotland included health problems, anxiety, sleeplessness and the breakdown of relationships.
It is clear that stress is taking its toll of teachers' health and impacting on their families. It seems highly unlikely to be mere coincidence that high levels of stress are being reported at a time when the number of teachers has been reduced by 4000 over the last few years, there are shortages of supply staff following a controversial pay-cut and workload has increased with implementation of the new school curriculum. Colleges are also under pressure, having lost thousands of lecturers' posts due to cuts, with the remaining staff picking up the excess workload.
At a time of unprecedented budget cuts, education cannot expect to escape unscathed. However, the record level of compensation payments vividly demonstrates how budget cuts that result in extra cost to the taxpayer reduce any savings made. All employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their workforce. Removing physical hazards which might cause injury is the simple part of this responsibility. Local authorities, headteachers and department heads in schools must recognise that it is essential to ensure that classroom teachers have sufficient training to meet new demands and support when needed to tackle a heavier workload or particularly challenging pupils. Scotland's education system can afford neither to lose experienced teachers nor to deter new entrants to the profession.