Councils seek powers to cut teacher absenteeism

FRAN ABRAMS

Education Correspondent

Local authorities are to press ministers for new powers to clamp down on teacher absenteeism. Research shows that teachers are missing an average of 14 days' work a year in some areas, and a report will call for greater control over schools.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) will call on Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, for new powers to step in where a headteacher or governing body refuses to act. Figures published yesterday showed that while children were absent for an average of four days during the 190-day school year, teachers were often away for far more.

In one authority, Haringey in north London, teachers lost almost two weeks of work on average last year. In Cambridgeshire, 36,613 days were lost in a single year. Separate research carried out in Newham, east London, showed that while half of the absences were caused by illness or stress, the other half was due to teachers being away at meetings or on courses.

Graham Lane, chair of education in Newham and chair of an AMA working group on local authorities' powers due to complete its report next week, said careful monitoring was needed. In Newham each teacher was absent for an average of 5 per cent of his or her time, or nine-and-a-half days.

In most cases, Mr Lane said, a monitoring system, under which teachers would be questioned if absent for more than a certain number of days, prevented problems from arising. But under local management of schools it was the responsibility of the headteacher and governors to discipline staff, he added. If they refused to act, there was nothing the council could do short of removing their delegated powers, which was usually considered too drastic.

The authorities have been negotiating with ministers and they are hopeful that new regulations will be brought in. These measures would also allow them to step in where there were other problems, for example if a school was using corporal punishment - now illegal in state schools - and refused to stop.

A spokesman for the Department of Education and Employment said that it had seen no reliable evidence on levels of teacher absenteeism. "We believe that most teachers are committed to their jobs. We haven't seen any evidence to prove otherwise but obviously if we are going to be sent a report we will want to wait and see it before we comment any further," he said.

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