pound;250,000 - the price of a ruined career

8th December 2000 at 00:00
Special needs teacher Janice Howell returned to work after a breakdown to find her workload was the same as before. Julie Hendry reports.

JANICE Howell's victory in securing a pound;250,000 payout this week could spark hundreds of compensation claims from teachers suffering from stress.

The primary-school teacher, who suffered two breakdowns and was forced to retire early, is the latest in a growing number of teachers who are challenging "intolerable" working conditions - and winning. But Mrs Howell's success threw her private life into the spotlight - a collapsed marriage and an estranged husband convicted of a drugs offence.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which had backed her action, confirmed it had been briefed about her personal position.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary, said: "We believe that there was an important education story to tell which was completely separate from the personal and business problems associated with her husband."

Mrs Howell added: "I am appalled that comments surrounding my family and former relationship are clouding the real issues in this case.

"For attention to be diverted away from the real issue, the lack of management response to stress endured by teaching professionals ... is irrelevant and insulting at best, malicious at worst."

Mrs Howell's legal action began two years ago, citing psychological injury caused during the academic year 1994-95.

Her last day at school was March 13, 1995, the writ was served on Gwent County Council in 1998 and her husband's personal difficulties surfaced in July 1999.

Their marriage broke up in summer 1999.

She was forced to abandon a 24-year teaching career because of the pressure of dealing with 11 specila needs pupils in a class of 28 at Maindee school, Newport, South Wales. They included a disturbed 10-year-old who had been expelled from two other schools and two thiopian war refugees. At one point, she was left to cope single-handed with the class for more than a month.

The 51-year-old suffered a "mini-breakdown" in 1994. She returned to work but was exposed to the same workload and in 1995 suffered a severe psychological collapse.

Panic attacks, nightmares, cold sweats, binge-eating, and an inability to organise even the simplest of tasks made it impossible for her to return to work. She said: "I still have bad days when I just look at the wall. I find myself sitting there, staring into space."

The compensation claim was made against Gwent County Council, which became Newport County Borough Council in 1997.

The NASUWT is currently dealing with 120 claims. The National Union of Teachers has 180 on its books and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers another 40.

The National Association of Head Teachers is also handling about 25 cases.

The National Employers Organisation estimates that about pound;2 million has been paid out in the last two years.


Deputy head Anthony Ratcliffe won pound;100,000 in an out-of-court settlement in July 1998 from Dyfed County Council when he suffered a breakdown because of alleged bullying by his headteacher.

Muriel Benson, an English and media teacher at Prenton high school, won pound;47,000 from Wirral Council at an industrial tribunal in September 1999 after a slide into deep depression because of workload pressures.

A 45-year-old teacher won a record pound;300,000 from Shropshire County Council in an out-of-court settlement in May for a stress-related illness caused by a discipline breakdown at his school.

Geoff Hetherington, a teacher for 25 years, suffered a breakdown after head Gill Wray persistently criticised him. He took sick leave in 1997 and was sacked in 1999. An industrial tribunal in August found he was unfairly dismissed and awarded him pound;15,000 from Darlington Council.

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