Welsh teachers are taking more days off work through sickness, and going absent for longer periods, than their colleagues in England, new figures reveal.
The number of Welsh teachers taking sick leave last year was 19,491, or 66 per cent of all teachers - up from 16,539 (56 per cent) in 1999. Each took an average of 13 days' leave, up from 11 days in 1999. In total, full-time teachers in Wales took 227,221 days off sick in 2003, and part-timers another 21,320.
Sickness absence among teachers in England has also risen over the same period, but less steeply - from 54 to 57 per cent of all teachers. Sick teachers in England are also off work for two days less on average. Unions blame the increasing stresses of the job, but recruitment experts suggest the age of the teaching workforce in Wales may also be a factor.
Long-term sickness rates are higher in Wales, according to the Welsh Assembly statistics. But the CBI, which carries out an annual survey on workplace absence, says there are no links between workplace absence and region. Its survey, published last month, shows that an average of 7.2 days per worker were lost in the UK, with the highest score (10.1) in the North-west. In Wales, it was 7.8.
But other government statistics, on employees absent from work through illness for at least one day in the week surveyed, put Wales in a healthier light - with only 2.7 per cent absent last year, compared to an average of 3 per cent in England and 3.3 per cent in Scotland.
Geraint Davies, secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Cymru, said he was not surprised by the figures.
"More teachers are feeling the stresses and strains of the job and are off sick. So many demands are being made on teachers, not just by schools but by pupils, governors, parents, local authorities and the Welsh Assembly government.
"And in Wales we have a very conscientious workforce.
"I was talking to a colleague who said that, at this time of year usually you could relax a bit, sit back and prepare for September - but that's no longer the case."
He added: "It proves the urgency to make sure the workforce agreement is properly implemented in every school in England and Wales."
Recruitment expert John Howson said the higher sickness figures in Wales could also reflect the fact that its teaching workforce is older.
Dr Howson, director of Education Data Services, said: "Older workers take more periods of absence, although usually they are shorter. The rising trend is consistent with an older profession doing a challenging job.
"Younger teachers tend to be ill less often, and when they are it is because of something like an accident, such as a broken leg, and then they are away for longer."
A spokeswoman for the Welsh Assembly government declined to comment on the figures.
The CBI says workplace absence is higher in the public sector, where staff take 8.9 sick days, on average two more than colleagues working for private firms. Public services such as education account for 29 per cent of total UK employment but 36 per cent of absences.
About pound;1 billion would be saved if public-sector absence was brought in line with the private sector average, it claims.