Pressure on the School v Pressure on the Teacher

Editor’s Note – Further content added 08/04/2017

There is no doubt that many teachers feel under pressure due to the hours spent on planning, marking, meetings at school, assessments and reviews.  As a consequence, teachers have to carry out work tasks in their ‘leisure time’. For some that leads to long working hours and a detrimental effect on performance.

Are the Head and/or Governors the Cause of Undue Pressure?

Photo of people feeling pressure

Head Teachers are not immune from similar pressures but are some Heads the source of the pressure on their teachers?  “What!” I hear being yelled at the screen as you read that.  Stop for a moment and consider – how many new policies or ideas have you or the School Governors initiated, which were not the result of a Government policy, but perhaps the result of a visit to another school or an idea from a conference?  Continous improvement is an aim that many organisations pursue.  That is not the same as continuous organisational change which some adopt as their organisation’s mantra – such change unless overtly beneficial leads to a weary, less responsive organisation.

There are different views for the increased pressure and numbers leaving the profession.  An example of such is given in the sources section (reference 3) at the end of this article.  The alternative view given in this article, which you are readiing, is based on the author’s work with school heads and governors and his own observations of situations.  The need to deal with the issues is not going to disappear in the short term and will require different approaches and active participation by the Governing Body of a school.

The incidence of head teachers being off sick for a lengthy period or even not returning due to a mix of illness and faltering leadershp seems to be more prevalent in the last few years.  We know that individuals react differently to pressure.  Some seem to thrive on it and others wilt. The danger arises when the pressure turns to stress and the individual becomes broken in spirit and/or health.

Headless Organisation

When the head becomes ill and/or stressed, the school may have a capable Deputy and SLT to step up to leadng the school.  However, that is not always so and the Deputy acts up but leadeship decisions become questionable due to the personal pressure perceived by him/her to prove themselves.  If the Governors are not actively supportive, the Deputy will begin to pass on the pressure to the staff.  A downward spiral develops.

The Governors need to intervene in several ways:

  • Secure an ex head or existing head to coach the Deputy in leading the school and use this time to develop the SLT as well;
  • Raise the self awareness of the Deputy and SLT so that they can address pressure points amongst themselves and receive appropriate support and coaching;
  • Review key priorities with the Deputy/SLT to avoid unneccessary changes that will lead to undue pressure;
  • If the Head is still in post, help the Head to realise that change for change’s sake or just to be seen to be ‘progressive’ is not necessarily in the best interests of the organisation and may be counterproductive;
  • The Governors need to accept their duty to ensure that working hours are reasonable.and the staff remain positive.

Governors’ Duty to Minimise Unreasonable Working Hours

In many organisations, professionals and managers have to work longer hours at critical periods.  The Teachers’ Terms and Conditions set out the working hours requirements but the Governing Body should be reviewing the hours regularly and seek to ensure that instances of long hours are examined and help given by a member of the SLT or a teacher colleague to the individual(s) to change the way they work and help the individual to be effectivel.  (See this earlier article for more details) [2]

When Individual Capability is a Key Factor

Working long hour may be a symptom or the cause of declining effectiveness.  The capability process can help to win an nidividual back in some instances.  However, many Governing Bodies have approved processes that are long winded.  In practice, such procedures fail frequently to provide a core supportive and balanced approach.

Heads and Governors need to be mindlful that because capability is often a drawn out process, patience can be lost and termination becomes the objective.  In some cases, that is appropriate.  If ill-heath is a contributory factor, a balanced approach is required if an unfair dismissal is not to result. This is an aspect of which Governors need to be aware.  When health has been affected by stress or similar illnesses, the doctors and therapists may not be able to provide an assessment on when an individual should be fit to return to work until after the treatment or sessions have been completed.

Balancing Act by the Governors as Employer

Such treatment may take, say 3 months more, and the Governors should balance whether waiting a further three months would be more damaging to the school (e.g. the pupils/students, teaching colleagues, costs etc.).

The Court of Appeal [1] has stated the importance of the balancing exercise.   The school had failed to provide any persuasive evidence of the further damage that would occur if the Governors waited for another three months before deciding whether or not to dismiss.

[Author’s note – tThis case was a majority decision.  The facts of a particular case will influence the outcome.  As the Court of Appeal noted this has been a hallmark for many years in ill-health cases per the case of Spencer v Paragon Wallpapers Ltd [1977]

“Every case depends on its own circumstances. The basic question which has to be determined in every case is whether, in all the circumstances, the employer can be expected to wait any longer and, if so, how much longer? Every case will be different, depending upon the circumstances.”}

As this is a decision by the Court of Appeal, it carries weight so Governing Bodies need to ensure that their internal hearings do carry out that balancing exercise and note the harm/damage either way if a decision on dismissal is not to be deferred in an ill-health type case.


Both the Head and Governors have an obligation to keep working hours under review and the Governors need to check that practical action is being taken to address instances of excessive hours and/or illness with performance/capability issues.

Further Action

Do you believe that a school has the opportunity to reduce the pressure on its teachers?  If so please leave a comment on this article as you can then help to draw more attention to the reality of such pressure and the need for action locally by the school.  


[1]  O’Brien v Bolton St Catherine’s Academy [2017] EWCA Civ 145
[2]  Earlier blog article – Teachers’ Working Hours – Duties of Governors and Head Teacher
[3]  Recruitment, Budgets and Accountability by Ros McMullen, published March 31, 2017 by Headteachers’ Roundtable.

© 2017 HR Management Dimensions Ltd.

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