Why Are All The Teachers Off Sick?

Why Are All The Teachers Off Sick?

I loved teaching and (almost) all the various tasks I was asked to do in my teaching career. However, one job I really didn’t enjoy was arranging lesson cover for absent colleagues. Fortunately, I didn’t have this responsibility for very long but it did give me a great insight into teacher staff absences.

This is a big issue. And one that costs schools in two main ways.

The hit to teaching staff morale.

Especially if the system asks staff to fill in for absent colleagues – which is what we did. For the short time I sorted staff cover I became the object of both friendship and its opposite as quite a few staff tried their best to avoid being put on cover duty. I understood this only too well as when I taught full time I hated losing my valuable “free” periods – often at the last minute.

In my defence, I did  operate a no-favour policy based upon everyone being on the selection list. Equally. Also, I always tried to get a subject specialist first and always tried to ensure that a colleague was not hit too often or at the same time each week. Despite my best efforts at being “fair” I admit that some staff covered more than others and some staff were never given some of the “trickier” classes. And, in the interests of full disclosure, I did give in to one member of staff who spent more than a whole lesson emailing me and speaking with me to outline in detail why he couldn’t spare the time to teach an extra lesson! Oh, and I made sure I covered more lessons than any other single colleague which never seemed to carry the weight with my colleagues I thought, and hoped, it might!

Of course, it wasn’t just the extra workload that added to staff concerns. There was the uncertainty of whether there was an extra lesson added to your day’s timetable when you arrived in the morning. Non-teaching lessons in a week is time that is vital to successful teaching – some of this time is given to preparing and planning, some to marking, some to recuperation, and some (!!) to administrative tasks. To cover for an absent colleague was to lose quite a bit of this time and that was rarely (OK, never!) welcomed.

There was also an increased burden on those staff who had to supervise the work of the replacement teacher, especially if it was long term cover. And the extra work that often greeted a teacher on their return – usually quite a bit of marking.

In the four  schools I taught in the topic of covering for absent colleagues was a hot potato. It was still a hot topic even when we started to bring in more cover staff from outside.

As you can imagine, I was glad to give this job back to my colleague when he returned to work!


The other impact to the school is probably easier to quantify – the added cost of bringing in cover teachers. However, even here it’s not straightforward. The daily rate for supply teachers varies hugely but mostly seems to be from £220 – £500. (Not that the supply teacher gets all of this as the agency will take a chunk – between £100 – £200 seemed the norm. Per day.) These figures may be different today.

In a survey of 322 Headteachers by ASCL in 2018 it was found that 74%  of respondents spent between 1-5% of their school budget on agency supply teachers in the previous 12 months. Another 17% spent between 6-10%. (In an average-size secondary school on minimum funding in 2018-19 that equated to between £261,000 and £435,000! Quite a sum!) The others spent more than 10%.

Has this got worse in recent years?

The DofE in June 2018 reported that the average number of days lost per teacher due to sickness in all schools in 2017 was 9.3. This was a decrease of 0.2 days from the previous year.

That’s an encouraging reduction which I hope continues. But before this 2018 survey figures from the Crown Commercial Service revealed that the cost of hiring supply teachers to cover sickness rose by 35% between 2011 and 2015. In 2015, 70% of this expenditure – £869m – was for supply teachers provided through agencies.

And, of course sickness is not the only reason people are absent from schools!

These are big numbers. And will probably increase over the next five years because the total number of pupils in England’s schools is expected to increase by 492,000 – 391,000 more in secondary schools. The unions calculate that England will need 47,000 more secondary teachers by 2024 to cope with this. That is compounded by a 19% drop in teacher training recruitment between 2017 and 2018.

And the students?

It’s not easy to gather data on the impact on student progress caused by staff absences. However, I suspect there is an overall negative impact regardless of the fact that many cover teachers are excellent teachers.

What are main causes for staff absences?

If we want to reduce staff absences (and why wouldn’t we?) we need to understand what causes it and although few schools have carried out surveys in any depth this list from the workplace generally will come as no surprise to those in education I suspect.

The main reasons given for being absent are:

  • Illness – This is the most common cause of absenteeism. I found this spiked at certain times (November and January were the peak months). Whilst I found this interesting it didn’t help me in my planning much at all! For example, I’d hoped that flu vaccinations might reduce winter absences but this didn’t seem to have any affect, sadly.
  • Stress – Closely linked to illness is stress. Indeed, extended time periods of feeling stressed reduces the immune system which allows illness take hold faster and tighter than before. And it takes longer to recover. Someone may be stressed because of work and/or due to personal reasons. Schools can do little about illness but they can do an awful lot about stress.
  • Bullying and harassment – If someone feels bullied or harassed by someone at work, they may feel stressed or worse and may feel it best to avoid the unpleasant situation and stay at home. This absolutely something schools can, and should, do a lot about!
  • Care – If someone is also a carer, such as for an elderly relative or a child, they may have to take time out of work if the dependent is ill, has appointments, or if their care arrangements fall through. This can be a most stressful time for colleagues and I always felt fortunate for the robust health of my own children as they grew up.
  • Bereavement – Inevitably, someone trying to cope with bereavement will often struggle with work. It is a pleasure to report that I found staff incredibly supportive in every single case when a colleague suffered a loss of this nature.

Does your school know why people are absent from work? Do you know what are they doing or trying to do about it?

Stress in schools

There will be a later post about surveys relating to staff well-being in education but here is a fact for the moment to ponder:

The latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey show

that the total number of cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18 was 595,000.This worked out at a rate of 1,800 per 100,000 workers. The equivalent figure for workers in education was 2,100.

This community aims to help reduce that figure. To reduce stress levels in this wonderful profession. To reduce staff absences caused by stress and stress-related illnesses.

Why Are All The Teachers Off Sick?
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About the Author Nigel Lowson

I loved teaching and loved working in schools because I learnt so much from my colleagues and the students. They never failed to inspire me and make me laugh! My curiosity in what makes people tick moved me into pastoral care and I was privileged to be in charge of a school's pastoral care and co-curricular programmes for 18 years. Here I saw first-hand the pressures on both staff and students (and their parents) and learnt so much about human nature, especially under stress. My focus has always been on offering practical, easy, quick solutions that work which are supported by science.

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