Why your school could be affecting your health

8th July 2016 at 00:00
New analysis of absences reveals big differences in the number of days lost to staff sickness depending on school type, Ofsted rating and location

The chances of a teacher taking sick leave vary significantly depending on what kind of school they work in and where in the country they teach, an analysis of absences shows.

The revealing new research suggests that schools rated “inadequate” by Ofsted struggle with much higher rates of sickness than those rated “outstanding”, while grammar schools have far lower levels than comprehensives.

Teachers who are working in sponsor-led primary academies are more likely to take time off ill than those who are working in local-authority primary schools, although the opposite is true at secondary level.

Regionally, the teachers most likely to take time off are to be found in the secondary schools of south-west England, while primary teachers in the north-east are the least likely to phone in sick.

Heads’ leaders suggested that the analysis reflects how much harder it is to “struggle through” an illness and come in to work when conditions are tough – for example, when working in a school with a poor Ofsted rating.

Education data consultants SchoolDash looked at the proportion of teachers who took time off sick during the 2014-15 school year, as well as the average number of days off, using workforce census data published by the Department for Education. They found that, in primaries that had been rated “inadequate” by Ofsted, the length of time taken off sick averaged 9.97 days among those taking leave – compared with 6.26 days for teachers working in “outstanding” schools.

Similarly, in secondary schools, teachers were off sick for an average of 8.94 days in schools rated “inadequate”, compared with 5.72 days in “outstanding” schools.

For both sectors, the likelihood of staff going off sick and the average number of days taken per year rises as Ofsted ratings fall.

Overall, the census showed that the proportion of teachers taking sickness absence was up slightly: 56 per cent of teachers had at least one period of sickness absence during 2014-15 compared with 55 per cent in 2013-14. But for those teachers taking sick leave, the average number of days lost was 7.6, which was lower than 7.9 in the previous year and down from 9.9 in 2000. The total number of days lost in 2014-15 was 2.22 million.

Cause or consequence

Timo Hannay, SchoolDash founder and author of the analysis, published on his blog (bit.ly/SDashBlog), writes: “The data doesn’t tell us whether these higher levels of absence are a cause or a consequence of the perceived lower performance at these schools, but you can imagine them feeding off one another. Work at a struggling school must often be more stressful than at a high-performing one, and if the worst schools lose around 60 per cent more staff days to sickness than the best ones, this surely makes them less likely to improve.

“The patterns for in-school deprivation, local deprivation and low prior pupil attainment are somewhat similar, if less stark.”

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The absence rate in teaching, overall, is very low. Teachers don’t want to let kids or colleagues down. But teaching is a difficult job to do if you are under the weather, because you are in front of an audience the whole time.

“It is easier to struggle through, I would suggest, if you are in a school where there is less pressure on you. If you are in a school that has youngsters who are challenging in terms of behaviour or there are issues to do with Ofsted, it is much more difficult. This may well impact on stress and create a number of illnesses, and then people feel they have to be at their peak to go in.”

Location also has an impact on staff sickness: SchoolDash found that primary teachers were more likely to take time off sick in the West Midlands (55 per cent) and least likely in the north-east (48 per cent). At secondary level, almost two-thirds of teachers in the south-west (65 per cent) had taken time off last year, compared with 56 per cent of those in the north-east. But while those in the north-east were less likely to take time off, they were more likely to be sick for longer periods.

The lowest average number of days off by region was 6.03 for London primary teachers, and 5.97 for secondary teachers.

‘Finding creative ways to ensure that staff feel valued is key’

For one headteacher, who took a London primary school from special measures to “outstanding” in four terms, sickness rates were seen to improve in line with the school’s performance.

“It is not that you do all this stuff and then absence rates improve; it is a simultaneous process,” says Rob Carpenter, executive headteacher at Foxfield and Woodhill primaries in south London.

“Even when we were in special measures, we [the management team] had to create a climate whereby whatever pressure we were under, staff felt good about coming into work. High levels of accountability without high levels of support is a dangerous place to be.

“Where sickness rates are low, it is [due to] a combination of having effective systems for monitoring absences, and putting effort into developing trust and good relationships. It is where staff feel trusted, supported, and their efforts get noticed.

“We celebrate successes with a notice board in the staffroom. Finding creative ways to ensure that staff feel valued is probably a key feature in helping to bring down sickness levels.”

Size matters: small schools are less sick

The statistics from SchoolDash (see data, left) show that teachers in small schools are less likely to take time off sick than those working in large schools.

Fewer than half (48.5 per cent) of teachers in small primaries – schools with fewer than 200 pupils – took time off in the 2014-15 academic year compared with 54.6 per cent of teachers in larger primaries with more than 320 pupils.

Mervyn Benford, information officer for the National Association for Small Schools, said: “Inspection reports, and research into life and learning in small schools, have long shown that they are happy places on the whole, so one would expect that the factors that cause sickness are fewer in small schools.

“Small schools are places where teachers are enthusiastic and work hard – where children are happy, and feel secure and safe; where there are good relationships with parents. That doesn’t mean teachers in small schools don’t feel as plagued by government regulations as other teachers, but I think because of this model of partnership between teachers and parents, small-school teachers are probably better able to cope with all the demands and stresses of modern teaching, and may report sick less often.”

The data revealed a similar pattern of sickness absence in secondary schools.

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