ALL OVER the country heads and deputies routinely struggle with one of the most difficult jobs in education today: managing teacher absence.
The Department for Education and Employment estimates that 2,800,000 days are lost in a school year, seven days for each teacher, at a cost to schools of pound;300 million.
The monster actually has two heads. First schools have to fill the empty place at the front of the class, a job which can involve managers spending hours on the telephone. Then the supply cover has to be funded - at anything up to pound;120 per day.
It is a problem ministers are determined to tackle, not just in schools but in the public sector as a whole. In 1998, authorities with the worst teacher-absence problems had rates 40 per cent higher than the best.
Public-sector targets for reducing absence were published in the autumn. But schools will shortly receive a letter from David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, in which he will set out more ambitious targets.
The Cabinet Office paper, Working Well Together, challenged the public sector to reduce absence rates by 20 per cent by 2001 and 30 per cent by 2003. Schools will be expected to do even better, reducing the 1999 rate by 30 per cent by 2001.
It could be a tall order. Despite the problems identified in a few local authorities, the teaching profession has a rate of just 3.64 per cent of contracted time, compared with 4.1 per cent for the public sector as a whole.
The department advises heads to record and monitor absence, make early contact with missing colleagues, institute informal return-to-work interviews, maximise the use of welfare and counselling services and encourage a healthy lifestyle.
It doesn't sound very threatening and the tone of the guidance has been described as acceptable by union leaders. But there are concerns. Although the interview and monitoring procedures have no disciplinary elements, they could represent the first step towards capability procedures.
"The absence rate results from the demands placed on teachers," said Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. "By all means, let's have targets - but let's look at the particular needs of schools and teachers."
One authority which attempts to do just that is Denbighshire in north Wales.
"When the new unitary authority was set up, a workinggroup looked into the problem," says Gaynor Brooks, the county's head of resources and management services. "Heads overwhelmingly decided to stay with the county scheme."
This offers cover from the fourth day of absence in all circumstances - except for small schools with only two teachers where supply teachers are required from day one. Bundled in with the scheme are the county's occupational health and counselling services.
"The county's occupational health service is a prime factor in helping to reduce problems," said Ms Brooks. "It's valued by the schools - and by the unions in the authority."
All the county's schools have opted into the scheme. Flexibility is built in: if there's an overspend, heads top-up the fund. Any surplus is fed back into school budgets - it's not run for profit.
This is in contrast with the policies being offered by insurance brokers and companies keen to maximise their business in education. Insurers have worked hard to keep premiums as low as possible and their selling point is usually the opposite of the collegiate approach adopted by authorities such as Denbighshire.
Brokers point to the savings schools can make if they have a history of low teacher absence. "Why should you subsidise the poorly-performing schools in the county scheme?" they argue.
It's a fair point. A school in an authority with high levels of absence would do well to examine the other options. But the new edu-businessmen have glossed over several important issues.
The insurance companies are unlikely to fund the occupational health services, counselling and specialist personnel support that the Government recommends. Schools that "outsource the risk" could find that cover is paid for, but the problem remains.
"Schools need to look at what is being offered alongside cover insurance," said Gaynor Brooks. "All our schools are aware that in a good year they will subsidise their colleagues, but in a bad year the situation is reversed. The figures are too unpredictable to make any sweeping statements about which schools are likely to need more cover."
For further information try the Institute of Personnel and Development which has published 'From Absence to Attendance' by Alastair Evans and Steve Palmer (0181 263 3387).
Insurance cover for teacher absence is offered by: Brokers Educational Supply Teachers Underwriting Agency Tel: 0990 168302; Harrington Bates (backed by Norwich Union) Tel 01423 526333 (Paul Davies) or email firstname.lastname@example.org