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Teaching can make you sicker for longer

Six out of 10 teachers in England fell sick last year, and unions are blaming Government initiatives. Clare Dean reports

TEACHING may well be a vocation - but it seems it is also bad for your health.

The first national survey on teacher illness in England reveals that six out of 10 full-timers took sick leave last year and that the profession as a whole was off for 2.5 million days.

And the survey shows that the teachers are "off sick" for much longer than the rest of the population. Full-time teachers who fell ill were off for 10 days on average. This compares with the national average in 1999 of 7.8, according to the Confederation of British Industry.

Almost half - 44 per cent - of all absences from school were for more than 20 working days. The survey, based on statistical returns from local authorities, shows that the South-west and the West Midlands, closely followed by London, Yorkshire and the Humber, were the worst-hit regions.

Perhaps not surprisingly unions have blamed the Government, accusing ministers of causing initiative fatigue. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "This scandalously high figure cannot be put down simply to teachers fiddling the system.

"It is a savage indictment of the stress and workload teachers have been placed under by successive governments."

Education Secretary David Blunkett has written to schools and councils this month charging them with reducing teacher absenteeism. He wants to cut last year's level by 20 per cent in 2001.

But Mr de Gruchy said: "Before pressurising employers to crack down on absence, the Government should consider the implications for the public purse. Compensation for the victims of stress is rising rapidly."

Meanwhile, new guidance on occupational health for teachers is to be sent by the DFEE to schools this month. This was welcomed by the National Employers' Organisation for School Teachers which has told schools they should prepare procedures drawing a distinction between "genuine sickness and suspect absence".

A survey by NEOST last year showed that the absence rate for teachers in 1998 was 3.6 per cent compared to 4.1 per cent within the public sector overall.

Mike Walker, assistant director of NEOST, said: "We understand the concern about the focus on stress levels but experience throughout the public sector shows that reviews of sickness absence lead to them being reduced."

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