The Socialist 5 February 2005
Iraq elections: No end to nightmare
Sacked for being sick
Teachers are fighting back
TEACHERS AT Newton High School in St. Helens have asked their union to ballot them for one day's strike action in protest at the way in which one of their colleagues has been treated under new sickness policies imposed by the council.
Robin Pye, St Helens National Union of Teachers
The council had to impose the policies because the National Union of Teachers (NUT) refused to agree to them. In particular, the union objected to a clause in the short-term sickness policy which required head teachers to warn all teachers who had a third instance of sickness absence in a 12-month period, that a further absence could lead to a formal warning.
Teachers are now coming into work when they feel ill - they are worried that they may need to be off sick later in the year with a more serious illness.
With teachers leaving the profession in droves because of workload, hounding teachers who are sick seems like an own goal. Indeed many head teachers seem to be ignoring the policy because they recognise the effect on morale its implementation would have.
Newton High School, however, is run by the local education authority (LEA) after it went into special measures and the policies have been implemented there with gusto. As a result, the school has become the focus of the union's fight against these policies.
Many teachers have experienced harassment because they have been sick, but the case that triggered the request for a strike ballot was a teacher who was dismissed on ill health grounds after a six and a half month absence resulting from a nervous breakdown.
The colleague was a well-respected teacher and also the union's rep in the school. Teachers were shocked at the way she was treated.
Another teacher who has been absent following injuries sustained in an assault by two pupils has been warned that unless her consultant can say when she will be ready to return to work, she too will be dismissed. She has returned to work once because she had been threatened with dismissal, but fainted at work and had to go home again.
The union is arguing that this runs counter to national terms and conditions which states that teachers who suffer industrial injuries are entitled to six months on full pay, six months on full sick pay, which amounts to the same thing, and six months on half sick pay.
In the case of the teacher who had the nervous breakdown, medical reports suggested that she was likely to make a recovery soon, yet her dismissal was upheld at appeal.
WHY ON earth is the LEA behaving in this way? The answer is in the preamble to the St. Helens sickness policy. One sentence reads: "Under government Best Value Performance Indicators, councils are required to set annual targets for improvement (of attendance) consistent with achieving the top quartile for their family groups over 5 years."
In other words, all councils are under pressure to reduce sickness absence in order to do well in the local government league tables. So if St. Helens council are allowed to get away with this policy, the pressure will increase on other councils to follow suit or risk missing out on the upper quartile of the league table.
This attack on teachers' terms and conditions of service will wreck teachers' lives across the country. At the moment the union has no clear national policy to protect members from this attack.
Too often, the union just deals with sickness issues as 'casework' where a union representative goes in to argue the best deal for an individual member. Harassment through sickness policies needs to be made a collective issue.
If one teacher has had a nervous breakdown in a school the chances are that all the teachers in that school are suffering from work-related stress. By getting teachers in that school together and presenting collective grievances, members are in a much stronger position to protect their lives from excessive workload, poor pupil behaviour and the other causes of stress.
In fact, the union should be going on the offensive in all schools on the question of work-related stress. Members should be getting together to identify the causes of work-related stress and then demanding that head teachers, governors and LEAs do something about it.
Following recent court cases, employers are under some pressure to respond to causes of work-related stress once they have been identified. By identifying them collectively, members are protected from individual victimisation.
Teachers like those at Newton who want to take strike action to protect a colleague are taking a stand in the finest tradition of trade unionism. They regard an injury to one as an injury to all.
They realise only too well if their colleagues are victimised in this way, then they can expect the same treatment if the same thing happens to them. They deserve the support of the union and of all union members.
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