Teachers blame overwork for sick leave

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The Independent Online

Teachers leaders yesterday blamed stress after official figures showed that classroom staff took 2.5 million days off sick last year.

More than half of teachers in England took some time off due to illness, averaging nine days off each - compared with a national average of 7.8 days

Ministers launched new health at work guidelines for schools and told local authorities to cut absences by 30 per cent over the next two years. Estelle Morris, an Education minister, blamed variations in absence rates on "management practice in schools".

But union leaders renewed their attack on Government initiatives, arguing that the figures confirmed claims that staff were suffering increasing stress. Stress was a major theme among teachers' concerns at the classroom conferences this Easter. Earlier this week it emerged that a Shropshire teacher had been paid £300,000 in compensation for a stress-related illness.

Ms Morris said: "Poor health is bad news for the teachers who go sick, bad news for their colleagues who have to spend time making arrangements for covering classes, and bad for children's education. Everyone is sick from time to time, and sometimes teachers come into work when they are ill. But the variation in absence rates can be influenced by the quality of management practice."

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat's Education spokesman, said: "This survey demonstrates the fact that many teachers are at breaking point as a result of excessive workload, bureaucracy and lack of professional support.

Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, condemned the Government's target. He said: "It is a disgrace. The figures are a staggering indictment of the ridiculous pressures and stresses teachers have been placed under.

"I would strongly advise the Government before they wield a big stick that they should consider their legal liabilities and they should be tough on the causes of stress rather than tough on the victims."

Graham Lane, the education chairman of the Local Government Association and chairman of the local authorities employers' groups, also criticised the Government. He said: "If there are some teachers who are swinging the lead then action should be taken but our view is that the majority of teachers are doing the opposite. They are struggling in when they are quite ill."

Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: "For the Government to suggest that schools can overcome the problem by developing a sickness management policy is to try to shift the responsibility from itself to the individual school."

Academics yesterday warned of a crisis in recruitment to teacher training, warning that graduates would be "stupid and foolish" to take jobs in university education departments.

David Triesman, the general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said universities faced a staffing crisis, with more than a third of staff in teacher training departments within five years of retirement. He warned that new staff were not coming forward to take jobs training the new generation of teachers, because university salaries could not keep up with those paid to staff in schools.

The Government's pay reforms meant a teacher with seven year's experience stood to earn up to £7,000 more than a lecturer of the same age, he said. Members of the association, holding their annual conference in Eastbourne, passed a motion calling for increased funding for teacher training.