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Know your rights

Everyone gets ill at some point. Don't worry, says Susannah Kirkman, there's a safety net to break your fall

Teachers are such a conscientious breed that they are reluctant to take time off when they are ill. Consequently, many are uncertain about their rights to sick leave and sick pay, according to the teaching unions.

Independent schools have their own conditions of employment, but if you work in a state school, there is generous provision for when you fall ill. You are entitled to around one year's sick leave, half on full pay, if you have worked continuously for the same employer for more than three years. The regulations actually say that you are allowed 100 days on full pay and 100 days on half pay, but as these are working days, this is about six months on full pay and six months on half pay.

The sick leave year begins on April 1 and ends on March 31 the following year. But if you are on sick leave on March 31, you would have to return to work before a new entitlement to sick leave could begin.

All employees are entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) subject to complicated conditions. Before you can receive SSP, you must have been unable to work for four consecutive days; weekends, holidays and bank holidays all count, even if they are not normal working days. Three of these must also be "qualifying" days; in other words, they must be days on which you normally have to work. So, for instance, if you fell ill on Sunday, and you usually work on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, you would be eligible for SSP on Thursday.

SSP is not extra pay; it just keeps your salary at its normal level. If you are ill for longer than seven days, you will need a doctor's certificate.

You can only receive SSP for 28 weeks. If you are still off sick after that, you may be entitled to incapacity benefit, provided you have paid full national insurance contributions in one of the previous three tax years. To make your claim to the Benefits Agency, you should get form SSP1 from your employer at least two weeks before your final SSP payment.

For the first 28 weeks that you receive incapacity benefit, you will need to provide medical certificates from your doctor to prove you are incapable of carrying out your job. After that, you will be assessed to see if you are fit to work, unless you are terminally ill or getting a mobility allowance to cover the costs of your care. If you are assessed as being fit for work, you can appeal against the decision. Incapacity benefit is worth pound;52.60 per week for the first 28 weeks, and pound;62.20 for the next 24. Anyone who is terminally ill or who receives incapacity benefit for longer than 52 weeks qualifies for the long-term rate of pound;69.75 per week.

If you have a serious long-term illness such as cancer, your employer can keep your contract open after your paid sick leave has ended. "Once someone's paid leave has finished, it doesn't cost the employer any more to keep the job open," explains Elaine Goswell, assistant secretary for salaries and pensions at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

Your employer also has a duty to facilitate your return to work. This could mean changing your working conditions if you are still disabled by your illness.

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