Staff sickness absence rates are a key issue in the education sector.

The impact on supply staffing costs, sick pay, pupil attainment, staff retainment and early retirement due to ill health is difficult to calculate.

It is certainly having a significant impact with staff absence rates higher compared to the private sector: (Sickness absence in the UK labour market, Office for National Statistics).

However, it isn’t just isolated to the teaching profession, with civil servants taking more sick days in 2022-23 than in any other year in the past decade, according to statistics released by the Cabinet Office.

Do schools actually have a sick note culture?

Reported in the news in April 2024, Rishi Sunak aims to strip GPs of their power to sign people off work as part of a plan to tackle what he calls the UK’s “sick note culture“.

What do we think is driving high staff absence rates in schools and why are absence rates increasing?

At Edapt, we support many of our subscribers with issues on sick leave, sick pay, occupational health, stress, anxiety, mental health and wellbeing and many other health-related issues with their employment.

It is obvious there are a multitude of issues driving this. Teaching is a front-line profession, with high-accountability and interacting with hundreds of pupils a day increasing the risk of catching illnesses. 

At Edapt, we have also seen an increase of cases where staff are impacted by mental health issues, with parental complaints having a wider online reach, bullying of teachers on social media and an increase of poor pupil behaviour. We are also contacted by teachers who decide to soldier into school when sick, as they are expected to send in cover work from home when they are ill.

It can be devastating for school staff to have long-term health illnesses preventing them from returning to the classroom or staff so anxious to return to the classroom as it will exacerbate their health issues. 

On a wider systemic level, teachers are leaving the profession seeking a better balance with health and well-being. It is definitely more complex than some commenters might suggest, suggesting teachers just take sick days when the job gets too much for them. 

We also need to accept that taking sick leave isn’t a “shameful” thing to do. We all need to take sick leave to prioritise our health and allow us to return to work in a fit state.

What do the school sickness absence statistics show?

The School Workforce Census collects information from schools and local authorities on the school workforce in state-funded schools in England.

It includes information about teachers’ salaries, qualifications, sickness absence levels, number of teaching vacancies and more.

Independent schools, non-maintained special schools, sixth-form colleges and further education establishments are not included.

In the table below, we can see there has been a dramatic increase of the numbers of teachers taking sickness absence from 2017/18 to 2021/22. It should be noted that staff absence data was not collected in 2019/2020 due to Covid. 

However, there is more than one million more total days sickness absence taken when comparing 2021/22 to 2017/18.

Staff sickness absence: can rates reduce?

We can already see that some schools are trialling and implementing more flexible working, duvet days for school staff, mental health and wellbeing leads and more initiatives to promote health and wellbeing for staff. 

There are quite a few practical examples where school staff will take sick leave rather than take unpaid leave, due to the nature of the role. For example, to attend job interviews, graduation ceremonies, weddings and other events during term time with some schools having quite strict exceptional leave policies.

There are some great organisations doing work to support the health and wellbeing of teachers. Education Support, supports individuals and helps schools, colleges and universities to improve the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. It also carries out research and advocates for changes in policy for the benefit of the education workforce. Mentally Health Schools also provide a range of resources for schools and teachers.

We all want to see healthy teachers enjoying what they do best in the classroom. There needs to be more conversation on making teaching a healthier, safer and sustainable profession and maybe these statistics might bring that closer.

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