Ruth Bradbury outlines the cost of staff absence to schools and explains how a range of practical measures can help staff to maintain a better attendance record for the benefit of themselves and the school.

Staff sickness absence is a national problem covering all sectors of employment. Estimates put the annual cost to the UK in lost hours and productivity at over £12bn, with an average cost of £495 per employee. While for many organisations the cost of sickness absence may be partly a notional figure – struggling on with reduced staffing is often possible, especially in the case of short-term absences – in schools the problem is particularly acute. The legal requirement for timetabled classes to be supervised means that the absence of a teacher has an immediate and direct financial impact. Supply teacher rates average at around £200 per day, and some brief research on the DfES schools’ benchmarking website has provided me with an average cost of £1,500 per teacher in 2005-06 amongst secondary schools of a similar size and context to my own. 

Furthermore, the financial impact of sickness absence is only really the tip of the iceberg for schools: when a teacher is away unexpectedly their classes can suffer disruption, especially if the supply staff used are not subject specialists. Disruption in learning can then too often lead to difficulties in behaviour, especially if the cover staff used are not familiar with the school or the students. Even if existing school staff are used for cover, or just simply to set work, this has an impact on their own workload and may well have a negative impact on morale and even increase short-term sickness. Ultimately then, high levels of absence can have an effect on the financial position of a school, on the ethos and atmosphere, and on the attitudes, motivation and achievement of staff and students. While many instances of sickness absence may be unavoidable, there are a number of measures which can be put in place by employers to decrease levels of short-term absence and which have been proven to be effective. In the remainder of this article I shall outline some of these measures and provide guidance on how they can work in practice.

1. Identifying individual sickness absence concerns

The first step towards managing sickness absence is to identify and assess the current levels that exist within your school. In the vast majority of schools, the computer system that is used for allocating cover and supply teaching will have a report facility which will allow you to print off reports of the number of days sickness absence taken by each teacher, or to upload the data into an Excel spreadsheet. Once you have this information, the simplest way of identifying staff absence concerns would be to sort them by total number of days’ absence and highlight those who have the highest number. This can be a very crude measure, however, as staff with genuine long-term sickness issues (surgery or a serious illness, for example) will always be top of the list, whereas staff with a high number of short-term absences – the group you should be targeting – may not be flagged up as giving cause for concern.

One way of addressing this is by using a ‘points system’ of rating staff sickness absence which takes into account both the number of days absent from work and the number of separate instances of absence. The most well known calculation for this is known as the Bradford Formula (or Bradford Model). It is used by a number of public sector organisations including the Prison Service, and was identified as a successful methodology in the 2004 HSE/Cabinet Office/DWP publication Managing Sickness Absence in the Public Sector. Using this model, employees are allocated a points score by squaring the number of separate absences over a period of time and then multiplying it by the total number of days absent in the period. This enables managers to identify those staff with a persistent record of absences and to distinguish them from those who have had a single long period of sickness. This is demonstrated in the example below, which calculates the points scores for three employees, all of whom have had a total of 10 days off work in a given period.

Calculation of employee points using the Bradford Formula

Number of separate instances of absence (S):

  • Employee 1 – 1

  • Employee 2 – 5

  • Employee 3 – 10

  • Employee 1 – 10

  • Employee 2 – 10 (5 x 2 days)

  • Employee 3 – 10 (10 x 1 day)

Calculation 52 x D:

  • Employee 1 – 1 x 1 x 10

  • Employee 2 – 5 x 5 x 10

  • Employee 3 – 10 x 10 x 10

Total points:

  • Employee 1 – 10

  • Employee 2 – 250

  • Employee 3 – 1000

By using the formula, it is easy to identify that, when considering sickness absence worthy of further investigation and potential action, employees 2 and 3 give more cause for concern than employee 1, with an extremely significant cause in the case of employee 3.

2. Taking action 

While calculating points scores can be illuminating, clearly it is the subsequent action taken which can help to reduce sickness absence. In some organisations there is a very clear sliding scale of management action related to Bradford scores. In the prison service, for example, 51 points in six months leads to a verbal warning, 201 points to a written warning and 401 to a final warning. In addition, staff with a score of 601 points in 12 months may be dismissed on grounds of unsatisfactory attendance, and this in fact led to the dismissal of 300 staff from the service in 2003-04.

Schools have a very different culture from the prison service, however, and it is unlikely that such a rigidly-defined approach would be either desired or easily implemented. Nevertheless, schools can still use Bradford scores as an objective and consistent methodology for identifying staff absence issues, probably on a termly basis. The ‘trigger point’ could then be identified by the school (most organisations will identify a trigger score at between 25 and 50 points), and staff highlighted as giving cause for concern could then be invited to a meeting with a manager – depending on the school’s preference this could be anybody from their line manager to the headteacher, or of course the business manager if they have a personnel remit. It should be stressed that this meeting is intended to be supportive in nature and is not in any way part of a disciplinary process. The meeting should give the individual the opportunity to explain their sickness record and to highlight any particular issues or difficulties. In turn, the school should offer support if appropriate and discuss with the member of staff ways in which the number of absences can be reduced in the future.

In many cases, the knowledge that absences are being monitored and that meetings will take place may be enough to encourage staff to improve their attendance. If the trend continues with particular individuals, however, then the school should consider other measures such as Occupational Health referrals or even disciplinary action on the grounds of unacceptable attendance levels.

As well as simply calculating points scores, it is worth analysing staff absence data to identify any other trends that may exist. Comparison of absence by days of the week, for example, may well yield a number of issues with particular staff on Fridays and Mondays which warrant further investigation. Similarly, a month-by-month analysis of absence levels over a few years may indicate particular sickness ‘hot spots’. Pre-emptive action could then be taken, maybe by introducing a work-life balance week just before the period in question, or maybe by providing additional incentives for staff to attend in those particular weeks. Finally, it is also always worth cross-referencing seemingly random absence patterns to the school diary: there may be one member of staff who is always off for parents’ evenings for example. If you do come across a case like this, then make sure that you tread carefully and – wherever possible – couch your discussions with the staff member in terms of support, at least initially. After all, it may be that they are genuinely uncomfortable with the idea of meeting parents and that the best course of action to take would be to provide professional development and support in this area.

3. Other strategies

Monitoring and acting upon historical staff absence data is a very effective and visible tool in the absence management armoury. However, there are a range of other practices which can be used in conjunction with this to reinforce the message that your school takes sickness absence seriously and to deter staff from taking unnecessary time off.

Tightening absence reporting procedures

Most people don’t like ringing in sick to work, especially if there is an element of disingenuousness involved. If there is an option of getting somebody else (eg a partner) to call for them, or to leave a message on an answering machine, the process is less uncomfortable and thus easier. In view of this, you should make sure that your school has a clear sickness reporting procedure which includes some, or preferably all, of the following:

  • a dedicated telephone numhber for absence reporting which is answered by a designated member of staff

  • a clear requirement to speak to a senior member of staff or their line manager when reporing absence

  • specified times for absence reporting (eg between 7:30 and 8:00)

  • a requirement for the employee themselves to call unless it really is impossible (if they are in hospital, say, or if they have lost their voice!)

  • a requirement to telephone the school and speak to a designated person on each day of absence which is not covered by a doctor’s note (usually the first five days).

Return to work interviews

Staff returning to work after sickness absence should be required to attend a brief meeting with a designated member of staff to explain their absence and confirm that they are fit for work. As with the ‘trigger point’ meetings described above, the purpose of this discussion should be promoted as supportive in nature. All return to work discussions should be recorded and a copy kept by the person responsible for sickness absence monitoring. This person should also have responsibility for ensuring that all required discussions have taken place and for chasing up any individuals who have not followed the procedure.

Occupational Health referrals

For certain members of staff, it may be appropriate for the school to request an external medical opinion on their condition. It is worth noting that this can be the case for individuals whose absences are covered by doctors’ notes as well as for those who are not. Your local authority will have an Occupational Health (OH) service which will offer employee assessments, and there will be a procedure for referrals to this service. The school (in conjunction with the local authority) should decide on general criteria for OH referral. In my authority, for example, all employees with back pain or stressrelated issues are automatically referred to the service, as is anybody who has been off work for more than four weeks.

An OH report will provide you with an independent assessment of the employee’s condition and a recommendation as to whether they are fit to return to work. The report may also contain suggestions for adjustments to the working environment or working practices to assist the employee in their recovery. It is best to comply with these wherever practicable, not only to reinforce the school’s supportive approach, but also to ensure that the staff member is able to return to work as soon as possible. This said, if proposed changes mean that the employee will get ‘special’ treatment (eg a reduced or selective timetable) then I would recommend that you request a specific time limit for this with a review date at the end of it.

Work-life balance

There is no doubt that teaching is a stressful job, and that these stress levels can be exacerbated by the fact that the school year dictates holiday periods and teachers are therefore (unlike almost everybody else) unable to book a day or two off when they need to recharge their batteries, or even get the house straight or do some Christmas shopping. While there is no denying that teachers’ holidays are a definite perk of the job, the six-week summer holiday may seem like an impossible dream when you are in the middle of a long school term in mid-February with parents’ evenings to attend and reports to write on top of your normal teaching load.

In view of this, and in order to get the best out of their staff, schools should consider ways in which they can ensure that their staff maintain an appropriate work-life balance wherever possible. The best way of doing this will differ from school to school depending on circumstance, and suggestions should be sought from your own staff and leadership team. However, some ideas could include:

  • making it clear that work-lfie balance is a priority for the school

  • increasing numbers of support staff to tackle teacher workload issues

  • introduction of a termly ‘work-life balance week’ in which (for example)

    •  – no after-school events or meetings are scheduled

    •  – staff are actively encouraged to stop work when the final bell goes

    •  – stress-busting activities are on offer at lunchtimes and after-school

    •  – free (healthy) refreshments are available at break

    •  – a creche is provided free of charge

  • setting realistic expectations and timescales for tasks

  • asking staff to review the ‘leverage’ (ratio of impact made to effort expended) of any activity they plan to undertake

Health promotion

Encouraging and supporting staff to maintain a healthy lifestyle can also play a role in reducing sickness and stress levels within your school. Some examples of this would include healthy eating promotions (particularly relevant with the recent changes to school meals), membership deals with local health clubs, and smoking cessation counselling.

4. Support staff

The majority of this article has focused on teaching staff sickness absence, as it is here that there is the most obvious impact both on the school budget and on teaching and learning. It may be true that the financial costs of support staff absence are lower than those of teaching staff – very often teams will cover short-term absences internally, and temporary staff (when needed) tend to be nowhere near as expensive as supply teachers. However, concerns about effect on performance and staff morale are just as valid for support staff as they are for teachers, and the majority of the recommendations made in this article can – and for the sake of equity, should – be applied easily to all staff in the school.

5. Formalising your approach

Once you have decided upon the approaches and methodology that your school will use to manage sickness absences, these should be included within a formal school managing sickness absence policy which can be put out to consultation with staff and submitted to the governing body for approval. This process will ensure that all staff are aware of the procedures that have been put in place and that will be adopted if necessary, and it will send the message that the school is prepared to approach the issue of sickness absence fairly and transparently, but also with rigour and thoroughness.

Ruth Bradbury is assistant headteacher (resources) at Westhoughton School in Bolton