TEACHERS must cut the number of days they go sick, says the Education Secretary. He fears the quality of teaching and learning is threatened by staff absenteeism.
David Blunkett has called for a review of teacher absences in a letter to employers' leader Graham Lane. He wrote: "I am perturbed by the figures from the 1997 Labour Force Survey which indicate absentee rates of 3.8 per cent for primary school teachers and 3.3 per cent for secondary teachers, compared with a general rate of 2.9 per cent for professional workers."
He adds it is important for the employers to "get a grip on this issue", but accepts there are problems monitoring absenteeism. He said: "I wish to commission work to document good practice in promoting teachers' health in the school as a workplace... I also propose to flag the importance of monitoring and assessing absence in the Circular on Teachers' Health which is to be reissued before long."
A recently released survey by the Cabinet Office, part of the same crackdown, found a third more sick days in the public than private sector and said overall sick leave costs Pounds 3 billion a year. It recommends attendance targets and challenges all parts of the public sector to reduce sick rates.
A spokesman for the Local Government Management Board said it had already carried out a pilot survey of sickness, and will be undertaking a full review. However, the employers believe teachers' sick records compare favourably with similar workers. Previous figures show teachers well down the "sickie league" compared to nurses, care assistants and social workers.
Police and prison officers top the league with an average of 12 days' absence a year. Direct comparisons are difficult, but teachers go sick roughly seven days during termtime.
Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary of the Association for Teachers and Lecturers, pointed out that teachers worked in a high-germ environment.
According to Ray Mercer of teacher supply agency Capstan, there are 35, 000 vacancies in schools each day, mostly caused by illness.
The unions said they welcomed a monitoring and review of teachers' health. Richard Margrave, spokesman for the ATL, said: "In my experience teachers will go in to work on their hands and knees, but where there is sickness it is often linked to the stresses caused by the job. Our stress hotline receives 1, 000 calls a year."
Kerry George, senior assistant secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, blamed the Department for Education and Employment's tough policy on ill-health retirement.: "It is not surprising, with the age profile of the profession and the effective end of ill-health retirement, that teachers are not happy in their work and need to take time off."