Open debate on future of teaching
Like civil servants, primary and secondary teachers can claim "sick days" even if their health is perfect. In effect, these days -- seven per year for teachers, 11 for civil servants -- form part of their holidays.
The unusual nature of this arrangement has often attracted unfavourable comment. So have the over-generous holidays enjoyed, for example, by senior local government officials. But far more days are lost through certified and uncertified sick leave. Indeed, the figures for teachers are startling.
More than 1,000 primary and secondary teachers have been on certified sick leave for between 90 and 260 days in the past four years. Those on the higher figure have spent more than an entire school year away from work. (The primary school year consists of 183 days, the secondary school year 167 days.)
The Department of Education has now warned persons in that situation that if absences exceed 365 days in a four-year period, they risk losing their salaries.
This move would appear to suggest strongly that the system is being abused. That perception must be fortified by the fact that uncertified sick leave among primary teachers has fallen by 58pc since the 2007-08 school year and among secondary teachers by 64pc in the same period.
But the figures can be viewed in more than one way. The sharp falls in absences followed a decision to abolish the employment of a substitute on the first day of sick leave. At least some teachers, worried about the difficulties for their colleagues and their pupils, must have gone to work although they felt unwell.
Their powerful unions, meanwhile, do not accept that absences are excessive. They point out that the recipients of warning letters account for only 2pc of the country's 52,000 teachers. The INTO said that half of its members' long-term sick leave is owing to cancer-related conditions.
Parents, and the public, are surely entitled to more information -- objective information -- on this subject.
By universal consent, teaching even in the best conditions is a stressful occupation. It must become even more so when teaching takes place in overcrowded classrooms, in prefabs, in schools in deprived areas and in schools with severe problems of discipline.
Often, teachers simply cannot cope. In extreme cases, they should be permitted to retire early, with as generous a settlement as a desperately overburdened Exchequer can afford. Beyond that, a debate is in progress on the future of our primary schools. The interests of the churches have been strongly argued. The same is true, though the argument is more muted, of the education establishment. But nothing can be more important than the physical and intellectual wellbeing of our children.