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Number of Highland secondary school teachers off sick with stress hits five-year high

By Val Sweeney

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STRESS-RELATED absences among Highland secondary school teachers soared to a five-year high last year.

A total of 3101 working days were lost due to stress – up from 2213 days the previous year, and higher than the 3021 days lost in 2014-15.

Teachers’ trade union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) said budget cuts to teaching and support staff were to blame for additional workload pressures.

The public spending watchdog, the Accounts Commission, has also published a critical report which states Highland Council is underperforming in education generally, and sickness absence days per teacher in particular.

It noted an average of 7.2 sickness days per teacher in the Highlands for 2017/18 whereas the Scottish average was six, ranking the region 25th out of 32 local authorities.

Figures obtained by the Highland News under a Freedom of Information request reveal days lost due to all sickness reasons among secondary school teachers dropped to 8474 last year from 8606 the previous year.

But the number of lost working days attributed to stress-related sickness increased by 888 days compared to the previous year.

Among primary school teachers, the overall number of sick days dropped from 10,020 in 2017-18 to 8968 last year.

Of these, 2366 were due to stress-related illness – down from 3411 the previous year.

An EIS spokeswoman said teachers often still turned up for work, even when they were too ill to be there.

She added: “In addition to the risk of seasonal illnesses, recent years have also seen a significant increase in the number of teachers suffering illness linked to high levels of stress.

“Cuts to teaching and support staff have placed additional workload pressures on teachers which may be linked to the marked increase in stress-related illnesses.

“Local authority employers have a duty of care to their employees, and should take all appropriate steps to support teachers’ health and wellbeing.”

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Edward Mountain claimed teachers were under increased pressure due to fewer pupil support assistants and additional support needs staff.

He said: “It is extremely worrying to see a huge rise in secondary school teachers having time off work due to stress and I hope they are receiving the appropriate support from their employers.”

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant was unsurprised to hear more secondary school teachers were feeling the pressure.

She said: “What is needed is investment in infrastructure and staffing, including additional support needs specialists.

“All of this is difficult as education is provided by local councils who have faced year-on-year cuts to their budgets over the last number of years.”

Councillor John Finlayson, chairman of Highland Council’s care and learning committee, recognised teacher absence was higher than national averages, but said the local authority was targetting resources and support to address this.

“These figures do not demonstrate any link between any reduction in resource and teacher absence as we have some of the highest spend per head on education and additional support needs in Highland,” he insisted.

He said staff wellbeing was a priority for the council and workplace support included regular risk assessments and access to counselling and wellbeing workshops.

A Scottish Government spokesman said it had reduced teacher workloads, removed unnecessary bureaucracy and was working with the profession, including the EIS, to address conditions affecting teachers’ wellbeing. He added: “Our work to improve conditions for teachers is further demonstrated by the pay deal agreed last year, which delivers a 13 per cent rise over three years and provides a shared agenda with employers and teacher unions on addressing workload, additional support for learning and empowering schools for the next two years.”

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