Cash-strapped Glasgow City Council has set up stringent new sick leave regulations in a bid to stem the Pounds 3.3 million a year it spends on cover from supply teachers. Edinburgh and other small authorities are likely to follow suit.
Figures suggest that at a varying rate of 3.5 to 5.5 per cent, depending on the time of year, the sick leave of Glasgow's 5,700 teachers is not outrageous. But it is difficult to establish an accurate picture as the council says it is unable to provide an annual average.
Neither the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) nor the Scottish Office has figures to supply a national average, although the latter says that a snapshot picture produced from local authority returns to them in September last year indicates 174 primary teachers on extended sick leave, 185 secondary and 28 in special schools. But not all authorities submitted returns.
Stress is an important factor in boosting teachers' sick leave - and the high number of young children means schools are also warehouses of different bugs and infections.
Glasgow officials are hoping that most teachers will privately welcome the new regulations - making them able to ride strong objections from the unions who are worried that headteachers might abuse their new powers and victimise some of their members. Glasgow councillors unilaterally imposed the new policy in June, when three months of discussions failed to produce an agreement with the Educational Institute of Scotland.
One teacher, who asked not to be named, told The TESS of a colleague thought to be running a business from home while still on the staff pay roll. With the cost of a supply teacher also denting the budget, he is angry that the supposedly ill absentee plays a part in diverting resources away from kids and teaching.
A second teacher, who also asked not to be identified, stressed that only a small minority abused the system - but is glad they will now be monitored more closely. "I was appalled by one or two people who did seem able to get away with it. At the drop of a hat they would be off. The previous policy wasn't tight enough."
One headteacher, however, had more sympathy for teachers who take odd days off: "An erratic pattern is indicative of a teacher not coping. A commonly held view is that a day off acts as a safety valve.
"A perfect record of attendance doesn't mean that someone has never been ill, just that they have stronger resolve and can cope better with a cold or feeling a wee bit low."
November, the one month in the school year when there is no holiday, is notoriously the peak month for deputy heads handing out "Please take" slips of paper first thing in the morning to the colleagues of absentees.
Depute director of education George Gardner says the few teachers who abuse sick leave can have a major effect, especially in a primary school. He rejected union claims that staff could be intimidated into coming into work while ill. "We don't plan to take teachers out of their sick beds or expect headteachers to be cavalier with the health of their staff. People who have genuine reasons to be off have got nothing to worry about."
The Glasgow branch of the EIS has issued a questionnaire to its representatives to monitor the impact of the new policy. It advises members "to be alert to any attempt to create a climate whereby whole staffs may be pressurised into not taking legitimate sick leave or individuals are bullied and harrassed."
They want to know how many staff are summoned to the headteacher for interviews after short and long-term absence and how many are referred on to the director of education. They also want teachers' views on how sensitively the new policy is operated and whether it creates extra stress.
Glasgow EIS secretary Willie Hart says his union will challenge the new regulations in industrial tribunals. "We are not in the business of encouraging absenteeism but we're not in the business either of agreeing to unreasonable demands."
Describing the new policy as "draconian", he lambasted the council for introducing the measure when staff are already facing the biggest staffing cuts for 20 years. "There may be tension between staff and management if there is very harsh treatment of individuals."
Calling on the council to stick with the sickness regulations the EIS had agreed with the old Strathclyde region, Mr Hart says he hopes that headteachers will have "the professional good sense" not to operate to the letter of the new ruling.
MAIN POINTS OF THE NEW POLICY
* Interviews with the headteacher automatically triggered after certain periods of absence - if three self-certificates or six working days absence within six months, or five absences or eight working days within 12 months, or any period of unauthorised absence;
* Where the underlying cause is believed to be due to personal difficulties such as marital problems, debt, alcohol or drug abuse, the head may suggest the teacher refer him or herself to the appropriate welfare service, with a view to improving the attendance record;
* Where the underlying cause is health-related, the employee may be required to produce additional medical evidence or submit to examination by the council's medical officer, to establish the nature of the problem, its likely duration, whether he or she is likely to make a full recovery, and if not, what work he or she is capable of and in what period;
* If a teacher's absence is deemed unacceptable andor a pattern of absence can be identified; no sustained improvement has taken place; the teacher is unable to offer any mitigating reason; there is no identifiable underlying health problem, the head may consider disciplinary action and should refer to the depute director of education.