Substitution Minister – Think Aggain

PaulOne of the most bizarre and poorly thought-out measures in the education budget is the decision to abolish payments to primary schools for the employment of substitutes when teachers call in sick and do not have a doctor’s certificate.

This decision has been advanced as a cost-cutting measure, however, even the most cursory examination reveals that it is a measure that will cause considerable disruption in schools for little or no benefit. In fact, all primary management bodies have recently expressed a careful professional assessment that this measure will be counterproductive and increase costs to the State.

There appears to be a failure of thinking underpinning this measure. This is compounded by some lack of precision in the published figures that create a suspicion of some smoke and mirrors. As a result, considerable doubt has been thrown on the rationale of other decisions and will continue to undermine public acceptance of measures required to balance the State finances.

Substitution for uncertified sick leave was introduced in 2003, as part of the national pay agreement. The Department of Education and Science states that since its introduction, substitution costs have escalated to around €36m per annum. However, this total is misleading as it includes all maternity leave cover. The figure is also not broken down between primary and post-primary contexts and includes substitution for teachers on school business. When considering the impact of unavoidable maternity leave, it should be remembered that the overwhelming majority of primary teachers are female with a very significant majority within child bearing age. We should also remember that the years 2006 and 2007 saw record numbers of children born in Ireland, a fact that is of growing significance to the future planning of education. The figures for certified sick leave are not separated in the breakdown either. So the statistics presented to support this measure are at least insufficiently detailed and at worst misleading.

However, it is when we examine the mechanics of this scheme in a real context that scheme seems to fall apart.

Let us imagine a typical school day in an average national school –
A teacher calls her principal before school and tells her that she is too unwell to come into work but will let her know how she feels later in the day. The principal has no idea of the severity of the sickness or whether it will involve a visit to a doctor. The principal will start telephoning and texting down her list of available substitute teachers to ensure that children receive the education to which they are Statutorily entitled. If a substitute is available, the principal is in a quandary. If the teacher stays out only one day without a doctor’s certificate, the cost of the sub will be added to the school’s burgeoning fund-raising effort. However, if the teacher goes to the doctor and gets a certificate, the substitute will be paid by the State in the normal way. The principal will inevitably phone the teacher back and ask her to go to the doctor to get a cert.. Later that day or the next, the doctor, conscious of his or her legal liabilities, will almost inevitably give a certificate for a minimum of five days. The State, in refusing to fund the school for the uncertified one or two day absence, will end up paying the certified absence of five or more days.

In the case above, the State could end up paying five times more than it would for a single day’s absence.

School boards, strapped for cash all around the country, have already done their arithmetic and realised that they would be better off even if they had to offer to pay for the teacher’s visit to the doctor. Some, no doubt, are sounding out sympathetic doctors to negotiate discounts on such fees.

Professional, committed teachers will also feel pressurised to come into work when they are unwell. This will spread contagious illness and lower the quality of work in the classroom. Such practices are counterproductive and will again most likely increase the levels of certified sick leave.

The result of this measure will be that the cost of certified sick leave will increase and will prove more expensive than the present scheme. The additional burden on the principal teacher of a primary school and its board of management, the additional disruption of classes and the potential for chaos if a school has to reassign classes or send children home seems a very high price to pay for a measure with such little merit.

The measure also flies against the consensus of modern management research which indicates that workplaces work most efficiently if a small number of properly monitored uncertified sick days are available to staff.

The bizarre element of the measure is that the financial penalty involved impinges on the employer and will effect the children in the classroom. There is no suggestion that the teacher would be docked pay or meet any sanction for uncertified absences. If the Minister’s thinking is that many teachers are really taking days off irresponsibly, it makes no sense to punish the victim of such behaviour.

The general public should also be aware, that primary management bodies in Ireland are firmly of the opinion that the level of absenteeism or ‘duvet days’ in primary schools is extremely low. These organisations represent the 21,000 volunteers who manage our 3,250 primary schools. They are certainly anxious for improvements in teacher accountability and are intimately aware of the realities of day-to-day events in schools. Their views cannot be lightly dismissed as apologies for the agenda of teacher unions.

These bodies believe that the level of absenteeism in primary schools is possibly the lowest in the Irish public service. They understand that primary teachers by the nature of the job are emotionally connected to a particular class of children and have very high levels of responsibility towards them. They very rarely let them down and very rarely take unnecessary sick days.

These responsible management organisations are united in calling for this measure to be withdrawn. The Minister should ether present a more convincing case or accede to their request.