Teachers point towards school accountability as main driver of stress

The close monitoring of schools and student achievement data in the English education system is unlikely to be a one-way street to "school improvement" due to the stress it causes teachers, finds a new study by UCL researchers.

The paper, which is published today and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, suggests that although increasing accountability may bring about short-term improvements in student performance, this could be counterproductive if it reduces teacher supply in the long-term and leads to shortages of high-quality teachers.

The researchers analysed data from the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) of over 100,000 teachers from more than 40 countries. They found that England sits towards the top of the ’accountability’ scale and that high levels of measurements of educational performance - such as school assessments being used to make judgements about the effectiveness of teachers, whether there are school league tables and whether there are inspections of schools -  could partly be driving higher stress levels among teachers in England.

For example, 68% of teachers in England report feeling accountability-related stress, compared to a cross-country average of around 45%.

Professor John Jerrim (UCL Institute of Education) said: "Accountability is becoming increasingly common within school-systems across the world yet many are concerned about the impact it is having upon teachers’ workload and wellbeing and whether this is turning people away from the teaching profession.

"Teachers in countries such as New Zealand and the United States with similar levels of school accountability measures as England, were less likely to be stressed and we are not sure why.

"The study therefore raises important questions about the pros and cons of England’s current system of school accountability. In particular, do we have the right balance between quality assurance of schools and ensuring that this does not stress teaching staff out?"

The study also considered whether teachers were more likely to feel stressed about accountability if their colleagues felt stressed by it and found that teachers were twice as likely to say that they felt stressed by accountability if their colleagues were also stressed by this part of their job.

"In other words, there are some schools where the stress caused by accountability is a particularly big problem that needs to be addressed," said Professor Jerrim.

The authors note there are limitations to the study and the findings should be interpreted carefully. The study used cross-sectional data and therefore can only establish the presence (or absence) of a correlation, rather than causation. There also could be issues of what being ’stressed’ means to people in different countries. Overall they say more longitudinal data on teachers is needed to monitor how levels of stress and wellbeing change when teachers are promoted or when school management changes.

Professor Jerrim added: "It is important that school-leaders continue to use student performance data appropriately, and do not make inappropriate inferences about it capturing the "quality" or "performance" of any individual member of staff.

"We also believe our findings highlight the need for policy makers to recognise that increasing accountability within the school system is unlikely to be a one-way street to ’school improvement."


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