A dramatic jump in the number of teachers seeking early retirement on health grounds is being seized on as further proof that the profession is experiencing unprecedented stress as a result of rising class sizes and curriculum reforms.
The teacher unions are deeply concerned about the sharp increase in ill-health retirement applications which are being submitted to the Teachers' Pension Agency. Between January and March of this year the agency received 2,000 applications, twice as many as it handled during the corresponding period last year.
The unions are also dismayed by the high proportion of applications that have been turned down in the past two months following a change in the agency's method of vetting requests for invalidity pensions. Sue Johnson, assistant secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "In the past we have received perhaps six complaints a year from teachers who have had applications turned down, but in the past two months alone we have dealt with 150 such complaints.
"The agency says it is using the same criteria as before to assess applications but judging by the flood of complaints - some of them from extremely distressed teachers - it does seem that the three doctors that the agency has been using since February are adopting a harder line."
The proportion of teachers retiring early on health grounds rose gradually throughout the 1980s. In 1983-84, 13 per cent of retiring teachers quit the profession for health reasons. By 1988-89 that figure had risen to 16 per cent, and in 1993-94, when 5,550 teachers left because of sickness, it reached almost 25 per cent.
Sue Johnson said that she did not fully understand why there should be another surge in applications this year but added: "There has probably been a build-up of pressure which has come to a head. It is the burn-out syndrome again. "
She acknowledged, however, that the introduction of local management of schools had contributed to the increase. "Both the schools and the teachers concerned are only too aware of the impact that their sickness can have on the school's budget," she said.
The ATL, which is setting up a 24-hour stress helpline next month, is annoyed that rejected applicants are being told that if they want to appeal they will have to submit further medical evidence - and meet the costs of any consultant's examination. But it is even more concerned that some of the rejected applicants may soon find themselves without a job or invalidity pension and relying solely on Income Support.
The association's anxieties are shared by the other big teachers' unions. Brian Clegg, assistant secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said that his telephone had also been "red hot" following a spate of calls from rejected early retirement applicants. "We have had up to 40 callers in the past fortnight and the regional offices must have had many more," he said. "One person who called us was virtually suicidal. It seems to us that most of the applications on the basis of stress are being turned down. We are encouraging rejected applicants to go to a consultant and get them to spell out why they are unfit to teach."
Olive Forsythe, spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers, said that one of its regional offices had established that six out of 15 applications had been rejected during one two-week period. Those rejected had been aged under 50.
"A lot of applications are being lodged by men who are suffering from very severe panic attacks. We have heard of teachers suffering an attack on the way to school and being unable to drive their car. Others are getting panic attacks in the classroom or when they go to the doctor's for a sick note that they fear will not be forthcoming."
The rise in the number of rejections would raise fears that the pensions agency was attempting to make itself look more attractive in the run-up to privatisation, she said. "It is a fact that it is cheaper for the agency if teachers over 50 take premature retirement rather than retire on health grounds. In the former case the local education authority picks up the cost of any pensions enhancement. If the teacher is sick, however, the enhancement costs are met by the agency."
This week a spokesman for the Department for Education dismissed this suggestion as "speculation" and insisted that there had been no change of policy on the award of invalidity pensions.
"All that has happened is that the Teachers' Pension Agency has arranged for the Benefits Agency doctors who have always carried out this work to be based in the TPA's Darlington premises," he said. "The intention is to make the operation more efficient and consistent.
"Each case is still being being dealt with on its individual merits. We have noticed, however, that a number of applications have been received at the onset of illness or before a course of treatment has been completed. It is certainly true that some of the cases we are talking about are stress-related but we don't know what the proportion is or why the figures have risen."