Rosemary Williams's problems began when an acc-ident left her with septic arthritis in the index finger of her right hand.
As a result she had to have the top joint of the finger removed, and as the only music teacher at Calthorpe Park School, an 850-pupil comprehensive in Fleet, Hampshire, this proved a real handicap. Not only did it affect her piano-playing but stringing and repairing instruments became very painful. In addition, since she also had arthritis in her hands and shoulders and suffered from hypertension, working out-of-hours to prepare performances and conduct the orchestra became difficult and exhausting.
Rosemary had worked at the school for 23 years and had an exemplary attendance record, but she felt she was going under and began to think about ill-health retirement. She said: "You need to be on top of your job to do the best for your children and I began to feel I should make way for somebody physically fitter."
But applying for infirmity benefit from the Teachers' Pensions Agency (now called Teachers' Pensions) proved a nightmare.
The TPA called her for a medical examination which lasted for "no more than 10 minutes" and was limited to an examination of her index finger. She said: "I was never asked about my general health at any time. The doctor merely examined my finger and wanted to know why this was a problem. I said 'I am a music teacher' and he merely replied 'I don't understand what music teaching is about'." Her case was turned down.
On appeal she was examined again, this time by a consultant rheumatologist who "made it clear that the TPA required him to ask only one question - was I capable of going to school and standing in front of a class."
Mrs Williams said: "Teaching, and especially in music, is more than just standing in front of a class. There are so many side requirements - doing productions, heaving things about. I was made to feel that I was just trying to get out of the profession but that was not the case."
It was after she had undergone two more equally humiliating medical examinations and rejections that Calthorpe Park School decided to cut staffing costs by inviting older teachers to apply for early retirement from the LEA. In the end she accepted early retirement aged 55 with three years' enhancement. Had she been granted ill health retirement, her lump sum would have been increased by Pounds 1,123 and her pension by Pounds 374 a year. But for Mrs Williams, money was not the issue.
"After 28 years of teaching I was disappointed in that I felt I was being fobbed off." Her husband, Mike, who formerly worked in the Treasury with responsibility for public servant superannuation schemes, was equally bitter. "The whole affair has been as undignified as it could have been."
However, Roger Booth, a 57-year-old science teacher at Calthorpe Park, was more successful. Suffering from tinnitus and increasing deafness he began to feel he was a danger in a laboratory with children about.
While applying for ill-health retirement from the TPA he paid for an independent medical report which stated his condition constituted a danger to the job and backed this up with a submission from the chief medical officer for Hampshire. His application was granted and he left last summer. "The process took six months and was straightforward. I have no complaints," he said.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has warned members applying for ill-health retirement that they must submit the fullest medical evidence possible.
Although most applications for ill-health retirement were accepted, rejections were for three main reasons: that the GP's report was inadequate; that they had not taken treatment to resolve the problem; that they had not taken full sick leave.
Applications for retirement on grounds of stress are particularly closely scrutinised. Marion Bird, ATL's deputy head of pensions, said: "One application from a member suffering from stress had been turned down because the doctor's report failed to say that the man was asthmatic, diabetic and also suffered from arthritis. When a fuller medical report was submitted the application was granted."
CHANGE IN PENSION LAW COULD FURTHER COMPLICATE HEALTH CHECKS
Teacher unions are concerned that staff who are genuinely ill and unable to do their job will not get their infirmity entitlement under Government proposals for teacher pensions.
If changes go ahead next April, teachers will have to show that they are permanently incapacitated in order to obtain infirmity benefit rather than incapacitated for "the foreseeable future" as at present.
Elaine Goswell-Cross, pensions officer for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "We want to know how permanent incapacity will be defined, for example, people with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) are reassessed every two years, how will this affect them?" In 1987-88 numbers retiring at the normal age were double the numbers retiring on ill-health grounds, but this began to change after the introduction of the 1988 Education Reform Act. In the 1995-96 academic year 6,100 teachers quit because of infirmity compared with 4,000 leaving at the normal retirement age.