NO school has an acceptable level of sickness absence among its staff, according to a National Employers' Organisation for School Teachers report on monitoring attendance in schools.
Teachers take less time off than other public service employees, on average (see clipboard). But, with pressure building from the Government to improve absence levels across the public sector, the report's authors set out their stall in aggressive fashion. "There should be no suggestion of an acceptable level of sickness absence since improvements can always be made. Managing sickness absence is not just about reaching an average level, but seeking to manage and address the causes of sickness absence over a long period."
The guidance, drawing on best practice in 20 local authorities, calls on all councils to produce general policies for their schools and for heads to see the issue as central to improving standards.
"In such a labour-intensive
service as education, high levels of sickness absence are both costly and disruptive to schools. Any reduction in absence levels can therefore lead to a significant improvement in the quality of education," the employers say.
Two main types of problem absence are distinguished: "frequent intermittent" absence and long-term absence.
"Frequent intermittent" absence - when a member of staff takes off a series of separate days, often for a variety of reasons - "can be the most difficult type of absence to deal with and it can only be addressed effectively through monitoring systems and effective management action".
A "three strikes" policy for triggering investigations is recommended. Headteachers should start formal absence procedures if a member of staff is absent without a medical note three times in one term, or if a suspicious pattern of absence is noted, such as persistent Mondays or
The resulting inquiry would not resemble a disciplinary procedure, with emphasis on cautions, rather than warnings, and consultation, rather than hearings.
The report stresses that many absences will be genuine and the outcomes of investigations could include counselling, referral to occupational health services and changes in jobs.
"Nevertheless, it could be appropriate for an employee to be warned at some stage in the sickness absence procedure that a continued pattern of frequent intermittent absence migh place their employment in jeopardy." If dishonesty is found, disciplinary procedures would be triggered.
In the case of long-term absentees, "the major factor to stress is that the headteacher should continually consult and discuss with members of staff who are sick".
However, a headteacher is entitled, at a certain point, to decide that it is no longer possible to accommodate the consequence of a staff member's long-term absence, the report says.
It recommends a general test of "Can I afford to wait any longer?" to heads - including consideration of the effect on colleagues, workload, budgets and education - while asking councils to draw up consistent criteria across their schools.
STAFF ABSENCES - THE FACTS
Pressure for improved attendance is increasing:
All public-sector organisations to reduce absence levels by 20 per cent by 2001 and 30 per cent by 2003
All local authorities have to set targets for reducing ill-health retirements, early retirements and sickness absence to the level of the best 25 per cent of councils in five years. In 1998, the
25 per cent of local authorities with the worst teacher absence had rates about 40 per cent higher than the best 25 per cent
The general absence rate in the teaching profession was running at 3.64 per cent of contracted time in 1998, compared to 4.1 per cent across the whole public sector
Schools expected to prevent absence by:
Establishing an "attendance culture", where absence is recognised as an important factor affecting efficiency Addressing health and safety, demotivation and stress Promoting occupational health and staff welfare
Schools should address persistent short-term absence by:
Investigating if a teacher is absent without a medical note more than three times in a term
investigating if there is a suspicious pattern of absence, such as frequent Mondays or Fridays off
In the case of long-term absence:
The headteacher should consult sick members of staff
A head is entitled, after consultation, to decide that "it is no longer possible to accommodate the consequence of a staff member's long-term absence".
Solutions could include a change of jobs, ill-health retirement or capability procedures