Desperate teachers are being driven to contemplate suicide because of increasing difficulties in gaining ill-health retirement, according to union officials. Others have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act following appeal rejections.
One teacher attempted suicide after his application was turned down, and unions fear there will be more unless Teachers' Pensions, the company that administers the superannuation scheme, takes a more sympathetic attitude.
"It's an absolute nightmare," said Alun Jones, South Wales representative for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "I am just waiting for the call from a teacher's partner saying 'Mr Jones, my husband has killed himself'. Teachers who've been turned down for ill-health retirement and who've lost their jobs are often on minimal state benefits and don't know which way to turn."
Another NASUWT official based in the north of England said: "I've come across teachers who've threatened suicide and teachers who can't be left on their own. The worst are those who've been consistently rejected. As well as financial difficulties, they have emotional problems and a terrible sense of failure."
Brian Carter, National Union of Teachers' Midlands secretary, said: "We are handling appeals for two members who've been sectioned under the Mental Health Act since their appeals were rejected. Under Teachers' Pensions rules, they're apparently not too ill to teach."
Cases initially turned down for ill-health retirement include a teacher who suffered two major heart attacks and now has angina; a PE teacher who had had heart by-pass surgery; a teacher at a special school who had major surgery for cancer and is now suffering clinical depression; and an infant teacher whose spine was damaged by a karate kick from a pupil.
Hopes of retirement have been frustrated by a change to the regulations introduced last April. While teachers used to be eligible if they could no longer function efficiently at their job, they now have to prove that they are permanently unfit.
At the same time, schools can dismiss staff whose poor health or physical incapacity mean they can no longer work efficiently. On average, about 5,000 teachers a year are granted ill-health retirement.
"Some teachers fall into a black hole where their LEA pays them off yet they're not considered eligible for a pension," said Alun Jones. "In the past, particularly with cases of ME, the pension was granted and reviewed in six months, but Teachers' Pensions is not doing that now."
Marion Bird, deputy head of pensions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, thinks it was wrong to scrap interim benefits. She is handling the case of a teacher with severe epilepsy whose retirement application has been turned down.
"In time, his condition may stabilise, but he has twice been taken from school in an ambulance after major fits and he can no longer get to the school because he is not allowed to drive," Mrs Bird said.
Another problem is that Teachers' Pensions generally seeks reports from at least one doctor. Even a consultant's report may not be enough; teachers are often asked to visit a designated doctor.
One teacher with severe depression first applied for ill-health retirement in 1995 and was turned down three times. "His partner was worried that he was suicidal so I visited him again," said a union official who asked to remain anonymous.
"He had reached the stage where he felt threatened by children and felt he hated them. I wrote a letter to Teachers' Pensions saying that this man could never teach again, and he finally got his pension, two years after he'd first applied."
Union officials believe that, while it may have been necessary to tighten the rules, things have now gone too far the other way. "Before, the rules were sometimes used in much the same way that the police still use them - to allow incompetent people to go," said the union official. "But now many genuine cases are being turned down."
The DFEE admits that more ill-health retirements, which are more expensive than age retirements, are being rejected than in the past. It says that the medical evidence supporting applications is often poor; some GPs do not seem to understand the change in the regulations which means that teachers must be "conclusively" permanently unfit to serve, despite medical treatment.
Case Studies. Friday magazine, page 33