Charlotte Wolff on the ins and outs of applying for early retirement on the grounds of ill-health
A working day for Peter Saunders was unpredictable. It could involve dealing with drug abuse, violence and sometimes lethal weapons. A woman once knelt in his office and begged him for help withher son.
You may have guessed his line of work. He was headteacher of a school in a socially deprived area of Britain. As the dangers associated with his job increased, he became too stressed to cope. This year, at the age of 50, after 30 years in education, Mr Saunders has taken premature retirement on the grounds of ill-health.
His story has a happy ending. He now receives an index-linked annual pension of around Pounds 13,000, on top of an initial tax-free lump sum of Pounds 39,000. This calculation was based on his highest or "average" salary and his length of service, with an added enhancement, which brings the amount closer to what he would receive at 60.
He was pleased to discover that he is also eligible for incapacity benefit from the Department of Social Security, allowing him to claim a further Pounds 250 per month.
Teaching is now recognised as being one of Britain's most stressful occupations. A recent TES-sponsored survey showed that 37.4 per cent of vacancies in secondary schools were due to ill-health retirement. In primary schools the figure was 18.6 per cent. This compares to 9 per cent in the nursing profession, according to research conducted in 1995.
As many teachers are only too well aware, changes to the retirement regulations the Government made earlier this year mean that it is now harder to qualify for ill-health benefits under the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme and that those who succeed have limited prospects of re-employment in schools.
Before the introduction of these rules, teachers could apply for an interim award allowing them to take a one- or two-year break on full pension benefits, while trying to recover from ill-health.
Brian Carter of the National Union of Teachers says this was useful for teachers suffering from ulcers or high blood pressure who needed time to regain their strength. Proof that you were unfit to work as a teacher "for the foreseeable future" was usually enough to qualify. If, after two reviews, you were still unable to return due to proven sickness, your allowance continued without question.
Teachers must now prove "permanent incapacity" in all cases, which means getting a doctor to agree that your illness will not improve.
Marion Bird of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers says certain conditions are accepted as being permanent, such as hearing difficulties and arthritis. "Depression can, however, be a problem," says Ms Bird. "You would need to prove that you have had repeated bouts of depression and this would need to be backed up by a medical history." In all cases, you would need to show that you have tried treatment and it has failed.
Mr Saunders was able to get help and support from his GP, who backed his application. Even so, Teachers' Pensions, which administers the superannuation scheme, required him to have a detailed consultation with a Harley Street psychiatrist.
Teachers' Pensions revised application forms no longer invite your doctor to make recommendations, only to answer queries about your health. Brian Carter believes this is a significant move that will make it harder for applications to be accepted.
The Government's other changes prevent teachers granted ill-health benefits since April 1, 1997, from returning to teaching in any form, except at independent schools or in higher education. Ms Bird believes this is too stringent and that every case should be looked at on its own merits.
"In some cases it would be tragic not to let a teacher return to work on a part-time basis," she says. Take, for instance, the case of a woman who retired three years ago having been ill with cancer. "She will never be able to go back into full-time employment, which broke her heart, but she goes into school twice a week and rests in between. This gives her a decent quality of life. "
A pensions expert at the NUT says that teachers who have retired on sickness grounds will also be barred from doing any paid work in schools which brings them into contact with children under 19, such as school librarian or secretary. She also warns that the Department for Education and Employment is considering clamping down on pension rights if teachers on infirmity allowances return to work in other professions.
Finding out about how to apply for ill-health retirement and what is involved can be a problem. Mr Saunders says he has become the local expert and often gets anxious teachers asking him what to do and how to fill in forms.
"Teachers are insecure at the moment, especially those with ill-health, " he says. "Some of them desperately want to leave the profession and are frightened they will not get their pension until 60."
ATL has published detailed guidelines on how to apply for ill-health retirement. Applications should be made to Teachers' Pensions about six months before you intend to retire. It is advisable to use first the full period of paid sick leave so that you have time to try to recover and assess the pros and cons of early retirement.
Peter Saunders is a pseudonym as the headteacher concerned wishes to remain anonymous