Susannah Kirkman talks to teachers left out in the cold by changes to ill-health retirement regulations
Madeleine Parsons taught at an infants' school in Walsall, West Midlands, for 27 years, until a disruptive six-year-old cut short her career with a kick to the base of her spine in 1996.
It was the fourth time she had had to file an accident report because of the boy's violent behaviour. The kick was witnessed by an educational psychologist who was preparing a report on the pupil.
Mrs Parsons, who is in constant pain, has since been turned down twice for ill-health retirement, although her health is considered poor enough for her to receive industrial injury benefit and long-term incapacity benefit. According to the union official dealing with her case, the Department of Social Security assessor for invalidity benefit has ruled that she is unable to undertake everyday tasks such as dressing and washing herself.
Mrs Parsons believes she has been turned down because an orthopaedic surgeon's report said she might eventually get better, even though arthritis has affected her spine.
"There is no way I could stand in front of a class all day - I can't even stand for five minutes," Mrs Parsons says. She is completely dependent on benefits. Mrs Parsons has received no pay since last July and governors at her school are pressing to terminate her contract.
Sheena Kilsby, who taught for 26 years, had major surgery for cancer in October 1996. After six months' chemotherapy and 20 doses of radiotherapy, she applied for ill-health retirement - Mrs Kilsby has been turned down twice, and has since developed clinical depression.
Mrs Kilsby's application foundered because her oncologist said she had responded well to treatment and would not be "permanently incapacitated".
She believes a consultant oncologist is not the best person to judge someone's fitness to work. "They treat people who are dying every day, so anyone who isn't counts as a good result," she says. "I don't think my consultant was even aware I was a teacher."
Mrs Kilsby taught at a special school in Birmingham for children with severe physical and mental disabilities and behaviour problems. "You have to be 100 per cent to do it," she says. "When you've had all the stress and anxiety of the treatment, you can't cope with the stress of the job. Specialists don't understand that - GPs do."
Mrs Kilsby's application has received the backing of two GPs and the occupational health officer for the City of Birmingham.
Since her pay stopped in September, Mrs Kilsby has received only pound;53 incapacity benefit a week. "If I've got depression, it's because of the situation I'm in," she says. "I go from feeling angry to being weepy. It wouldn't seem so bad if someone at Teachers Pensions would at least ask to see you and talk to you. I don't see how they can make a judgment based on letters and reports."
Mrs Kilsby says the impersonality of the process is particularly upsetting. "What distresses people is the apparent lack of compassion," she says. "It seems as though you have to be dying before you can get ill-health retirement."
Carolyn Greenwood's promising career as a PE teacher ended when she fell on snow at school in February 1996, damaging her back and neck. Mrs Greenwood can no longer carry or lift - she can't even read or write because of the pain in her neck.
She has had no pay since December 1997, and was planning to sell her Swansea home when she finally heard in March that her application for ill-health retirement had been successful. The LEA medical officer had suggested in July 1997 that she took ill-health retirement and set a date of December 3, 1997.
When she rang TP to find out why she had heard nothing from them, she was told they couldn't find her file. At the end of January, she was told that she would need a further medical from an occupational health physician.
"It's been the most stressful time of my life," says Mrs Greenwood, who has two young children. "If I hadn't received a pension I don't know how we would have survived, but you're just a number to Teachers Pensions. If we hadn't pestered them, my case would probably still be unresolved. How can they treat human beings like this? I didn't want to give up teaching - I had a good job, with promotion ahead of me, but it's as though you've got to beg them for a pension."
* Rules that add insult to injury
Tough new standards for claiming ill-health retirement came in last April. Teachers Pensions no longer accepts evidence of inability to function efficiently. Now, teachers must prove they are permanently unable to teach.
The application process has also been drawn out, as Teachers Pensions may insist on several medical reports. A GP's report is usually deemed inadequate. Instead, teachers must be referred to a consul-tant, causing further delay.
"GPs get annoyed by this apparent questioning of their competence and are often reluctant to refer teachers on," says an official from teachers' union NASUWT.
"One member was refused because the consultant didn't get the wording just right," reports Julie McKinlay, a National Union of Teachers officer who deals with many Midlands members who have been rejected for ill-health retirement. "This teacher has been on sick leave for more than two years. He has had severe dizziness and head pains since a traffic accident."
Even if a Benefits Agency assessor or occupational health physician has judged a teacher unfit to work, this may still not be enough for Teachers Pensions. "We are getting many more rejections, particularly for stress-related illnesses and depression," says Brian Carter, Midlands secretary for the NUT.
"In an effort to tighten the rules, the pendulum has swung too far the other way," says Julie McKinlay. "Members and their doctors are bewildered by some of these decisions."