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Soaring sick rates 'show teaching is being bled dry' in Northern Ireland

 

By Rebecca Black

The latest official statistics relating to school teachers paint a "bleak picture", a trade union has said.

Figures released by the Department of Education yesterday reveal that the average number of sick days in schools across Northern Ireland has risen to 9.5, up by 1.3 from the previous year, and that teacher substitution costs have increased from £67.3m to £73.6 in 12 months.

The overall pupil to teacher ratio in 2016/17 is 17.8, an increase of 0.2 from 2015/16, and the median age of teachers is 41.5 years, up from 41.4 years in 2015/16.

There are proportionally fewer teachers aged under 30 this year (9.7%) than in 2012/13 (12.3%). The statistics also reveal that the number of full-time equivalent teachers is 18,487.1, a decrease from 18,570.9 in 2015/16, and that the number of substitution days worked by prematurely retired teachers has fallen to 8,557 days in 2016/17.

This represents 1.7% of the total days worked, compared to 14.4% in 2008/09.

Avril Hall Callaghan, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, described the figures as "depressing but predictable".

"Our profession is being bled dry," she said. "Teacher sick leave is up, the pupil to teacher ratio is up, teacher substitution costs are up and the work force is ageing - the statistics paint a bleak picture of the state of our education system. We have been highlighting issues surrounding each one of these statistics for some time now, warning parents that it is their children who will bear the brunt. Now we have the statistical evidence to back that up."

Teachers in Northern Ireland have been in a long-running dispute with employers over pay, job security and workload. Negotiations between the five local unions and management, which ended after 13 months with no agreement, restarted earlier this year. Previously the unions rejected a pay offer of 0% for 2015/16 and 1% for 2016/17.

Ms Hall-Callaghan said teacher morale was at an all-time low.

"School budgets have been so brutally hacked away that principals simply don't have the cashflow to fund their schools," she said. "We are seeing teachers - whose vocation is to educate and nurture - buckle under the stress of trying to cope.

"Is it any wonder sick leave is up and we are losing our young people, that vital fresh blood with their vigour and enthusiasm, from the profession? We need a sea change if this downward spiral is to be stemmed."

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