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Sicker teachers in state schools

TEACHER absenteeism is far higher in state schools than it is in the independent sector, new research suggests.

Just over 45 per cent of the state school teachers included in a 271-school survey went sick during the autumn term last year, compared to only 26 per cent of independent school staff. State absentees also took more days off - 6.8 days on average, against 4.4 days in the independent sector.

Teachers have a better absenteeism record than many public-sector workers but the Government wants to see the rate cut by 20 per cent this year. It estimates that the 2.8 million days lost to teacher sickness each year costs pound;300m.

The study by Cambridge University researchers is believed to be the first to compare absence rates in the two sectors. It not only underlines the scale of state schools' problem but indicates that existing procedures for reducing absenteeism may not be working.

The Department for Education and Employment advises heads to monitor absence, make early contact with missing colleagues, institute formal return-to-work inteviews, offer counselling services and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Researchers Tony Bowers and Malcolm McIver, who surveyed 137 independent and 134 state schools, found that most state heads acted on the DFEE's advice. A higher proportion of state schools had written policies for reducing teacher absences. They were also more likely to arrange return-to-work interviews and to offer a phased return.

The researchers acknowledge that the independent schools had shorter academic years than state schools - 11 days on average - and more generous teacher pupil ratios - 1:13 compared with 1:19. But their survey suggests that such statistics may not provide the sole explanation for the difference in absence rates.

"It would be too easy to lay a stereotype on independent schools," Tony Bowers told last weekend's European Conference on Educational Research in Edinburgh. Independent special schools, which have higher absence rates than state special schools, cater for "some of the most dangerous and difficult children" in the country, he said.

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