Sick teachers are finding it harder than ever to access the ill-health retirement benefits they are entitled to, according to the National Union of Teachers Cymru.
More teachers are suffering health problems, but many with a legitimate claim for an ill-health pension are settling for a reduced pension scheme so they can leave the profession early. They could be missing out on thousands of pounds for their retirement, says the union's financial advisers.
Over the past three years, the number of teachers opting for ill-health pensions has declined while those opting for "actuarially reduced" benefits has risen, according to Tracy Isaac, liaison officer at Teachers, a friendly society originally set up by the NUT to offer pensions and financial advice.
With the "reduced" option, teachers can retire at any age between 55 and 59 and 11 months, but their pension benefits and lump sum are cut. A teacher who takes it on their 55th birthday will lose the most, with their pension reduced by 25.8 per cent and their lump sum by 15.7 per cent.
"The unions were opposed to actuarially-reduced benefits when they were introduced in 2000 because they feared that the other options would be more difficult to get," said Ms Isaac. "Teachers were told they could go at 55 but would have to take the financial hit, and lots of people said at the time that no one would go for it."
Last year (2004-5) however, of the 20,124 teachers who retired in England and Wales, 28.1 per cent opted for actuarially-reduced benefits. This was up from 23.9 per cent the previous year, and 20.35 in 2002-3.
At the same time, there was a corresponding decline in the use of more generous premature retirement arrangements, where a teacher can be credited with extra years of service as compensation for leaving early. In 2004-5 just 9.5 per cent of those retiring took an "infirmity" or ill-health pension. This compares with nearly 13 per cent the year before and 16 per cent in 2002-3.
Gethin Lewis, secretary of the NUT Cymru, said the criteria for ill-health had been changed so that teachers now have to demonstrate they are permanently unable to work.
"This is an impossibly high standard to qualify for. We are finding that those whose health breaks down in their 40s or 50s are missing out on ill-health entitlements because it is impossible for their doctor to say they can never work again," he said.
Mike Beard, assistant secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, with responsibility for pensions, said those with genuine ill-health should pursue the infirmity pension and seek advice from their union about filling in the application. But he said the actuarially-reduced option did have some perks.
"Although it is reduced, they have the choice to get another job that doesn't involve taking work home, or even do a day's teaching, without it affecting their pension."
Pay and conditions are not devolved to the National Assembly. A spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills, London, said:
"Teachers who have become permanently unfit through illness or injury to serve as a teacher are entitled to an ill-health pension provided they satisfy the criteria.
"It is necessary to demonstrate that the applicant has the medical incapacity and it is likely to be permanent. Those who have had an application rejected can appeal, and can submit a new application with further medical evidence."