Staff absence: counting and reducing the cost

Staff absence is one of the hardest budget areas to predict. Hilary Goldsmith looks at the real cost of staff absence, and what can be done to reduce it

Author details

Hilary is director of finance and operations at Varndean School. Her responsibilities and experience range from educational leadership, strategic financial management, facilities management – and acting as agent for Varndean's celebrity goats....

Most school business leaders have a fair idea of their staff turnover factors, average maternity costs, likely incremental progression and any planned changes to the staffing structure due to retirements, departures or changes to the curriculum.

But the one area that can cause even the most locked-down budget to burst its seams is the cost of covering staff absence. Impossible to predict and tricky to manage, staff absence is a huge issue for school leaders. With supply costs ranging from £160 to £250 per day, it’s a cost that can cripple schools in more ways than one.

Supply costs

If an average daily supply teacher costs £200, and a school has just one teacher off sick each day, that’s £38,000 a year.

A teacher on long term sick leave for six months, on full pay, can cost a school close to £20,000.

Add a couple more teachers off sick, plus the day to day absences of minor injuries, ailments, colds and flu, and an average secondary school could easily be looking at a six-figure absence bill.

The hidden costs

That six-figure sum is just the cost of putting a body in a classroom. What are the hidden costs of a three-day sickness absence?

  • One single day of absence is five hours of lost learning for 30 pupils, for say, five lessons a day. Over three days, that’s 2,250 lost learning opportunities. To contextualise that further, that’s the equivalent of the guided learning hours of 18 GCSE German courses.
  • It’s also three break or lunch duties that might not be covered, increasing the risk of incidents of poor behaviour or bullying. That’s two hours of unsupervised time.
  • On top of that there’s the time for other colleagues to pick up those behaviour incidents and deal with them. That’s maybe another three hours.
  • There’s the admin time of booking supply, inducting them, setting cover work, photocopying it, delivering it, and paying the agency invoice. Let’s say three more hours.
  • Then there’s the lost meeting time, one hour a week, lost collaboration and CPD opportunities, another hour, and let’s not forget the two hours of PPA.
  • That’s a total impact of 2,260 hours. For just three days.

Steps to reducing the cost

Cover supervisors 

Cover supervisors are employed in many schools to pick up the first days of an absence (after three days most absences will need a qualified teacher).

Cover supervisors might cost you around £18k per year, which is the equivalent of 90 days of daily agency supply. So, if your school is experiencing more than 90 days of short term sickness a year, this might well be a cost-effective solution for you. However, that relies on the absence being split evenly throughout the year, and not all happening in the same cold week in January!


Many primary schools buy into a sickness absence insurance scheme. Fewer secondary schools have opted into such schemes, as traditionally a larger staff has given more opportunity for internal cover. But as the cost and impact of sickness in the teaching profession increases, more large schools are turning to insurance schemes as a way of limiting their financial exposure.

Team and pool arrangements

Particularly for secondary schools, another solution might be that departments arrange cover between themselves, on a mutual basis, knowing that if they are ever off their classes will be covered by a respected colleague.

Some schools operate a system where staff can volunteer to take on cover lessons which are then banked to be taken off at a later, agreed time. Others have a pool of casual supply teachers who they employ directly, who are retired or part time, are happy to help when needed and don’t incur those costly agency charges.


This is the best solution. Much work is being done in the education sector to research and highlight methods of protecting the wellbeing of school staff, and our hope is that solutions will be found and implemented nationally.

However, schools themselves have a vital role to play in creating an environment which builds staff wellbeing into its operational and strategic priorities.

The role of middle managers

Middle managers are critical and crucial to the effective management of sickness in the workplace. Team leaders should be able to gauge the mood and wellbeing of their staff through daily interaction. A morning catch-up over a cup of tea is a way to support each other and build relationships. It’s also an opportunity for the manager to pick up the early signs of a struggling colleague and to intervene with support strategies to help them through difficult times.

A consistent approach to absence management is also vital. The return to work (RTW) meeting is a perfect opportunity for the middle manager to really explore the cause of the absence, not just how to get the employee back into the classroom again as soon as possible.

For many employees, being absent from work can be hugely stressful in itself

Schools should arrange training for middle managers in how to carry out an effective RTW meeting. Many new managers will have little to no HR experience, and staff who receive an invite to such a meeting may be tense, expecting a punitive approach. If the RTW meetings are conducted appropriately and consistently, they will become a normal part of the absence process.

Tips for a productive return to work meeting

  • Welcome your colleague back to work, check how they’re feeling and if they’re able to resume their full role. The focus should be on them and how you value their return – not just what they missed and how others filled in for them.
  • if they have a medical certificate, talk through any advice given by the GP about any temporary adjustments and how you can accommodate them. Any complex adjustments, or those with an impact of more than a few days, will need to be referred to your HR team or occupational health provider.
  • Discuss the nature of the absence and if there might be any underlying causes of which you are not aware. For example, the colleague may have become sick or injured through an activity they took part in outside of work; they may be worn out by caring for an elderly relative or young child. Or there may be a workplace issue (such as workload, bullying, or a difficulty with another colleague) that needs to be explored.
  • If you feel there is room for improved attendance, an attendance target should be set and the employee must be made aware or the possible outcomes if their attendance does not improve. Refer to your school’s own policy on the details of next steps, but ultimately, staff need to be made aware that continued absence could put their job at risk.

Only human

Finally, never forget that people get sick. They don’t mean to, they don’t want to, but they do. Don’t lose sight of the person behind the sick note. For many employees, being absent from work can be hugely stressful in itself. Having to miss vital lessons, set cover work, catch up with meetings, emails and marking make taking time off far from easy.

While it’s essential to manage absence from work, it’s just as important to keep an eye on those who do turn up and struggle on, pushing their minds and bodies to breaking point, when they really need to stop and rest.

Last Updated: 
31 Jan 2022