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Flummoxed for a better cover story

Many years ago, I worked in the mythical education authority of South Inertia, employed as a full-time teacher of tolerance studies in that renowned citadel of learning, Soaring High School. The headteacher, I M Flummoxed, was a fair-minded man, who wanted the best for his pupils and staff. Flummoxed could see that the arrangements for staff absence were inherently unfair, but was at a loss to identify a more equitable approach.

Colleen Young, an exile from the Emerald Isle, had never missed a day of school, but, unlike many of her compatriots, she was no expert on the fiddle. Day after day, year after year, she took additional classes, substituting for missing colleagues. Colleen harboured an intuitive hunch that they were not always at death's door, but she reckoned they would do the same for her one day.

Curiously, that day never arrived and Colleen thanked God that she was not plagued by the incessant migraines and devastating upset stomachs endured by her colleagues.

Flummoxed had heard from the United States of an alternative arrangement for staff absence. Schools operated a no-claims-bonus system, and staff who made no call on the absence cover budget over the session had additional holidays, to be taken at the convenience of the school.

He happened to mention this to John Trot, the union rep, who was outraged at the very suggestion of disadvantaging the sick in this way. When Flummoxed tentatively enquired whether unions should not equally represent those who shoulder the burden of covering classes, Trot stormed off, muttering angrily about the dark ages and wee boys up chimneys. He had never received a complaint from those who came to their work every day and concluded that they must be happy with their lot.

Flummoxed leafed through the weighty tome of personnel papers in search of a remed for the anomalous position of A Duffer. Duffer had been absent for 18 years and Flummoxed had only ever met him at absence management meetings. Three headteachers and several American presidents had come and gone during his period of absence.

Duffer knew he was a duffer, but believed implicitly in the justice of his cause. His diagnosis of school phobia had been validated by 143 psychiatrists. His colleague in the department, a Kenyan called Yougo, had acquiesced in the situation and even agreed to a NINJA, a non-injurious association. This was a device, negotiated between South Inertia and the unions during a moment of inattention, whereby Duffer worked only during months containing an "x" or "z" and Yougo the Kenyan did the rest.

It took some hard-nosed bargaining to sell the deal to Duffer, who was advised by Trot to hold out for compensation for loss of travelling expenses, as he would no longer have to drive to the annexe, 47 miles from the main building.

Colleen, Yougo the Kenyan and other staff had no objection to helping out on occasions of genuine illness. They readily accepted that teachers also needed time off when children are ill or when they had urgent personal business. They never hesitated to fill in for colleagues who wished to attend the funeral of a friend or relative, although Colleen had encountered one resourceful chap who always took the precaution of carrying a black tie in his briefcase since, as he sagely advised, "You never know the minute".

What exasperated colleagues at Soaring High was the opportunists who played the system, who knew every iota of the rule book and who had scant regard for the consequences for their colleagues. I'm glad that things have moved forward since my South Inertia days.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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