Sacked for sickness but too fit for retirement

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Anat Arkin on a headteacher who found his much-needed escape hatch blocked by tougher rules on pensions.

After 13 years as a successful headteacher and a year on sick leave, Robert Pepper was recently sacked on the grounds of "incapability through ill health".

But although the governors of his school have decided he is no longer capable of doing his job, the Teachers' Pensions agency has twice turned down his application for ill-health retirement after applying the more stringent conditions introduced last year; conditions which may increase the numbers dismissed for "incapacity" where once they might have been retired early.

Mr Pepper's health problems go back to January 1997 when he broke his collar bone while taking a group of children for football practice. His father had died a few days earlier, and when his collar bone snapped, so did his ability to cope with the stresses and strains of his job at Gerrans county primary school, near Truro.

For most of the previous term he had been running the 85-pupil school with a succession of supply teachers while both his permanent members of staff were on sick leave. One of them, a popular reception class teacher, gave in his notice soon after returning to work, which triggered protests from parents. Coming on top of all the usual pressures on primary heads, these events proved too much for Mr Pepper, and a week after his accident, he broke down.

His shattered collar bone began to knit together after four months. But it is taking him much longer to recover from the effects of the stress of his final few months at work.

Last June, while receiving treatment for clinical depression, he applied for early retirement. He was turned down on the grounds that he was not permanently unfit to teach. In November, when Teachers' Pensions turned down his second application for the same reason, his mental state took a turn for the worse and was re-diagnosed as "burn out".

By this stage Mr Pepper's salary payments had stopped and he was surviving on Pounds 55.70 a week incapacity benefit. But that was cut off just before Christmas when the Benefits Agency put him though a mental and physical capability test and decided he was fit to work.

"I was supposed to go out and work, which was difficult when I was still employed by the local authority and my doctor said I was unfit to teach, " he says.

With his GP's help, Mr Pepper made a fresh application to the Benefits Agency. His incapacity benefit was restored after an examining doctor found that while he was making a good recovery from "a severe depressive illness", he would never be able to return to teaching.

Following his dismissal last month, he plans to apply once more for early retirement. To succeed he will have to satisfy new eligibility criteria for ill-health retirement introduced last April at the same time as other routes to early retirement were effectively cut off.

Whereas teachers used to be able to qualify for ill-health retirement benefits if their medical condition was temporary or not serious enough to prevent them from teaching part-time, since April 1, 1997 they have had to show that they are likely to remain permanently unfit to teach.

With doctors often unwilling to write patients off, even the most seriously ill teachers find this condition difficult to satisfy - especially if, like Robert Pepper, they are still several years away from the statutory retirement age.

Mike Beard, assistant secretary of his union, the National Association of Head Teachers, gives the example of another head who was recently refused ill-health retirement simply because she was 43 and might possibly become fit to teach again at some point before she reached the age of 60.

Another change to the pensions regulations prevents those receiving ill-health benefits from taking on "relevant employment" in a school or FE college. There is nothing in the regulations to stop them taking on work outside teaching.

But, according to the Department for Education and Employment, "their ability to do so will be a factor in forming a judgment on the extent to which they are incapacitated".

In practice this seems to mean that former teachers stand to lose their ill-health retirement benefits if they take on any kind of non-teaching job.

"We have a large number of people telling us that they have been informed that any work they undertake outside teaching will have an effect on their pensions," says Mike Beard.

"The effect of this interpretation of the regulations is that if a teacher takes ill-health retirement, they are on the scrap heap of life. They can't take on any sort of work because if they do, they lose their pension."

For Robert Pepper, who is still on medication, the future looks bleak. Unless his third application for early retirement is successful, he and his wife Coral, a former chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, face a sharp decline in their living standards for the eight years left until he reaches retirement age.

But if his application does succeed, he will not be able to take on even the most undemanding part-time job without putting his hard-won pension at risk.

"It seems as though the goal-posts are moved every time you try to apply for something," he says.

"I've been teaching for 31 years and what is happening just doesn't seem right."

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