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Week in perspective

TEACHERS could be forgiven for feeling a bit sick after ministers pledged to crack down on absenteeism, this week.

A Government survey showed that more than half of teachers were off work ill last year, spending an average of nine days out of the classroom.

In total teachers took 2.5 million sick days. The cost of employing a supply teacher is now more than pound;100 per day, suggesting that hundreds of millions is being diverted from school budgets.

The Department for Education and Employment launched new guidance on occupational health for schools in an effort to cut absenteeism by a third by 2002. Schools minister, Estelle Morris, pointed to regional variations as evidence that good management practice could cut teachers' time off.

However, the unions and Liberal Democrats said the figures were evidence of the stress teachers are under. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT union, said, "I would strongly advise ministers before they wield a big stick that they should be tough on the causes of stress rather than tough on the victims."

Stress caused by an inspection was blamed for the death of Pamela Relf, the teacher from Middlefield primary in Cambridgeshire who committed suicide after her work was criticised by the Office for Standards in Education. This week, OFSTED said it had "partially upheld" a complaint against one of the team which inspected the school.

Miss Relf's union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, called for the results of the inquiry to be made public. "We want assurances that OFSTED will take immediate action to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated," said general secretary, Peter Smith.

But ministers show no sign of easing the presure on teachers. Not content with performance pay for staff, the Government intends to make 10 per cent of funding for A-level courses dependent on student passing their exams.

The new system, which begins in 2002, aims to equalise funding between school sixth-forms and colleges. Institutions will be paid by the number of courses they run, rather than the number of students they enrol.

In Scotland, the row over Section 28, the now infamous law banning the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, may be inching towards a conclusion. Scottish ministers announced that they would send "legally-backed" guidelines to local authorities on the teaching of sex education in schools.

However, the Keep the Clause campaign - backed by Brian Souter, the millionaire boss of Stagecoach - said they were suspicious of the timing of the announcement. Mr Souter is funding a private referendum on the future of Section 28 in Scotland later this month.

Less contentious will be a new campaign to reduce illiteracy among Scots. Henry McLeish, Scottish minister for enterprise and lifelong learning promised a national crusade backed by "millions of pounds" after figures based on the 1997 Adult Literacy in Britain survey suggest that as many as one in four Scottish adults cannot read or write properly. It is estimated that as many as 400,000 are unable to work because they lack basic skills.

The Scottish Parliament has also agreed to tighter control over the location of mobile phone masts. The decision follows a report by a Government taskforce which said that children are particularly at risk from radiation when using mobile phones and that controls on masts near school should be tightened.

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