Q I have been head teacher at a small secondary school in a semi-rural location for three years. At our most recent Ofsted inspection (2015) we were rated ‘good’ – and I am blessed with a team of dedicated and loyal staff, not to mention great young people with largely supportive families. However, despite all these factors, staff absence has grown every year since I have been at the helm, and is now unacceptably high. Some of it has been unavoidable, with the reasons fully evidenced (emergency operations, for example, and a very distressing bereavement), but there is an increasing trend towards ‘low level sickness’, amongst staff members generally, leading to ‘the odd day’ here and there – which, of course, all add up. I’m at a loss how to tackle this, without directly accusing good teachers of ‘slacking’, and causing ill will as a result. Do you have any advice?
A The majority of schools accept that absence is inevitable, however ensuring that staff absence is kept to a reasonable level and doesn’t impact on the performance of your school is essential.
One of the first steps you should take is to monitor and measure the number of absences and whether these are planned or unplanned and adopt a back to work review that takes place upon return to work (as soon as is practically possible).
This review should carry out root cause analysis upon each return to work to ascertain the cause of absence and if this is related to a bigger issue such as workplace stress or problems in their personal life. It is important to pick up on this type of absence as soon as possible as this could result in longer periods of absence down the line.
If workplace stress is the cause, look at what you can do to alleviate the stress factors for that individual or help them to manage stress through reframing the problems and helping them to see the bigger picture.
Ensure that staff are aware that a review will take place after each absence and that each absence is being recorded and monitored and will be reviewed during appraisals and more frequently if required. As part of this process, you should analyse absences to identify any issues such as repeat illness or particular patterns of absence.
If necessary offer a phased return to work depending on the reason for absence. This may prevent a reoccurrence caused by coming back too soon.
One other aspect to consider is the school environment; schools can be a demanding and pressurised environment, and it is important that everyone has a good work-life balance and time to do things that make them happy each day. Keep an eye on individual workloads and ensure that your colleagues are not taking on too much.
In addition, does your school promote a healthy lifestyle? We all like a biscuit now and then, but many schools provide a fruit bowl in the staff room to encourage healthy eating. Schools are also a great breeding ground for germs; ensure that soap is provided by all the sinks in the school and if necessary invest in anti-bacterial gels to keep the spread of germs to a minimum.
And last but not least, check to see if you have access to an independent wellbeing service to provide counselling and practical support to your staff. This can enable you to support your staff at the times they need it most and in turn can reduce the occasions or length of absences in your school.
Q Our secondary school is converting to academy status from September 2016. As I understand it, in terms of insurance against staff absence we have a choice between opting into the local authority’s staff absence mutual fund, or determining our own level of cover. Are you able to advise us on the pros and cons of each option, and also take us through some of the main points to consider if we do choose to opt out of the local authority’s mutual fund?
A Moving to academy status gives schools a lot more freedom to choose how they operate but it can also be daunting losing the support of the local authority.
When considering protection against the cost of staff absence, academies have a few options open to them. One of the options is to self-cover by making financial provisions in your budget to cover the cost of supply teachers. The downside of this option is that an academy could find it goes considerably over budget, particularly if it experiences any long-term absence.
To protect your academy from this happening we would recommend you take out protection against staff absence either by purchasing a staff absence policy from an insurance broker or by opting in to the Local Authorities Mutual Fund if available.
The advantage of your Local Authorities Mutual Fund is that this does not incur any Insurance Premium Tax at 9.5% or any other fees that are likely to be charged by an insurance broker for arranging the insurance. These fees will vary but for larger schools can run into the thousands.
However, an insurance policy can usually offer more cover options as opposed to a one size fits all approach that many Mutual Funds adopt.
Another thing to bear in mind about local authority schemes is that if the fund runs out mid-year, each academy in the scheme may need to pay an additional premium which may not have been budgeted for, leaving you at financial risk or a shortage of funds for other budgeted activity.
On the other hand, if the Mutual fund is in credit at the end of the year, this will normally be dispersed back to the schools as most are run as not for profit schemes.
Check the cover offered and any additional benefits provided. We would encourage you to compare the type of cover provided by the local authority fund against an insurance broker’s policy to ensure you have the cover you need, or are not paying for cover you don’t need.
Local authority funds often cover all absences, whereas private insurance will adhere to a policy wording that will probably contain exclusions and terms and conditions that must be followed to ensure any claim made is valid for example, notifying the insurer of a claim within a specified time scale. The benefit of insurance is that it is individually underwritten based on your academies circumstances, so if you are a school with fewer absences on average, you may be able to save money in comparison with a mutual fund.
One of the main advantages of using an insurance broker is that many will offer access to Health and Wellbeing support services. These services will usually come with access to an independent advice line that all staff in the academy can access and these services can often help reduce absences or the length of absence, in turn reducing the impact of staff absence on the academy
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joanna Beames works for Towergate Insurance*, which has been providing staff absence insurance to schools for over 20 years. For more information about managing staff absence in your schools please call Joanna on 0330 123 5131 or visit www.towergateinsurance.co.uk