Editorial - Strong nations are not created from sick beds

26th June 2009 at 01:00
We must revisit the 'rarely cover' rule to ensure it does not add to teachers' stress

According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the cost of "sick note Britain" is set to soar. Figures uncovered by the organisation reveal that public- sector workers already take on average two more sick days per year than their private industry counterparts - and teachers, it seems, are not immune.

The latest figures from the Assembly government reveal that the percentage of teachers on sick leave has fallen slightly, but absentees are taking longer to return to work. More than 253,900 days were taken in all last year - nine days for every teacher. That's a quarter of a million days when cover had to be found for Welsh classrooms. Heads and teaching staff were left to pick up the pieces.

For years, the CBI has warned of the huge cost to businesses of not addressing unreasonable workload issues with employees. In the same vein, ignoring the impact of stress on teachers' health could damage the life chances of the next generation of wealth-makers.

Teachers' unions are already reporting that the threat of redundancies in Wales's schools is affecting morale. Such anxiety is likely to mean more teachers off sick.

No one is suggesting teachers should be seen as a special case, but shouldn't we be looking after them more in hard times? If Wales is truly embarking on a child wellbeing agenda, shouldn't it start by looking after its teachers, who, after all, are the way back to economic prosperity?

A couple of years ago, the Metropolitan Police force was keen to publicise an anti-stress policy that it claimed had dramatically reduced the number of sick days taken by officers. By concentrating on raising the general wellbeing of its staff, sick days were reduced from about 12 per year to just seven over a period of two years. Could the teaching profession learn some lessons from the Met? Employees who are treated well will normally go that extra mile.

But the NUT is also right when it says officials need to look again at the "rarely cover" rule of the workload agreement, which is to be introduced this September, and examine its impact on schools. David Evans, secretary of NUT Cymru, said the government and local authorities should investigate why there are so many sick days in the profession in Wales before schools are placed under even greater pressure to find lesson cover in the new academic year.

Teachers who fall seriously ill as a result of a heavy workload - and we must not forget heads here - must be caught before they fall. If a teacher feels stressed or is suffering through ill health, surely it has an impact on pupils' academic achievement and the teacher's own professional development.

The government has taken steps to ensure teachers have support, but in the light of the new "rarely cover" rule, more needs to be done. Wales needs to ensure our teachers are well supported and cared for in such hard times because the nation's future prosperity cannot be guaranteed from a sick bed.

Nicola Porter, Editor, TES Cymru E nicola.porter@tes.co.uk.

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