Why are sick teachers treated like malingerers?

School attendance policies imply teachers are shirkers after a day off, but the opposite is true, says Yvonne Williams
22nd October 2019, 10:31am


Why are sick teachers treated like malingerers?

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Research from the Education Support Partnership shows up yet another aspect of the presenteeism culture in schools. And it's flattering to hear on this week's Tes podcast that part of the explanation is the tremendous dedication teachers feel to their students.

Teachers find it very disruptive when they miss lessons, as well as when their students are absent. In both cases, there is a lot of extra work to be done. 

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If they are ill, teachers are expected to phone in with cover work. The consequence is often extra marking, just when they should be focusing on recovering. Having to do more work in what should be leisure time is a strong reason not to take any time off. Ever.

Draconian sickness policy

It's far from my wish to dismantle the glowing portrayal of teachers' devotion to their students in the Tes podcast. It is true that teachers do their utmost to keep pupils on track, and go more than the extra mile to do so - hence the many after-school, lunchtime and holiday study sessions that they hold. 

But there is a far less altruistic dynamic going on in many schools.

The sickness policy that began to be introduced in the early 2000s was pretty draconian. While it's understandable that employers don't want to be footing a heavy supply bill, it's hard to applaud the kinds of measures they take to protect their budgets when it comes to teacher sickness and absence.

In some ways, this chimes with the heartfelt article written by Jo Brighouse about a growing culture of fear in some schools. A typical attendance policy will be reported as a supportive mechanism, but the underlying messages soon surface.

Attendance is 'a high priority'

One example is the "Model sickness absence management policy and procedure", provided on the Schools' Choice network, described as having been "developed to assist headteachers and governing bodies to manage sickness absence and to create a culture of attendance". It is pretty clear how the employee is regarded when the back-to-work interview includes the purpose of signalling "that attendance (and therefore absence) is a high priority for the school".

This is an insulting statement, carrying as it does the implication that somehow most teachers are shirkers and want nothing more than the occasional day off.

Perhaps it says more about the originator of this policy than the estate of the teaching profession. Even though the policy states the intention "to ensure the employee feels valued and knows their absence was noticed and that they were missed", the economic imperative is pretty clear in the word "valued".

The final point (making "the employee aware if s/he is approaching a trigger point") is very threatening to many teachers. Just the possibility of facing a query from a line manager about being well enough to return to work is cause enough for additional guilt and stress. 

Unwell at the desk

Such policies are prevalent in schools, and constitute a strong imperative to keep teachers at their desks, even when they are unwell. That often leaves teachers struggling in when they are losing their voices, have heavy colds and are already tired and stressed.

What they cannot cope with is the threat implicit within these new practices, which treat sickness as a misdemeanour and wellness as something that is entirely within a teacher's control.

It should be pointed out that any teacher with a condition such as a pattern of migraines would fall foul of the policy immediately if they didn't struggle in. This condition is a debilitating one, involving sickness, unbearable pain and sometimes visual disturbance. Migraines can be caused by stress. In the worst cases, the sufferer manages to plough on through the week, only to be struck down with all the symptoms in a "weekend migraine".

There are every few malingerers in the profession - but many stressed, over-supervised people, who carry on day in, day out, whatever their state of health. It constantlysurprises me that unions have so little to say about policies that all too often presume teachers are likely to malinger unless they are constantly supervised and their health is constantly monitored. 

It's yet another aspect of the suffocating control that a hard-nosed human resources management approach exerts over professionals whose intrinsic and altruistic motivations need no policing.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the South of England

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