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To your very good health

A mutual society is offering support for 95 pence per head

Imagine you are a brilliant and much-needed maths teacher who could pick up a job anywhere. At interview, the head offers you all the the non-contact time you want, the continuing professional development, and the laptop. But what clinches it is the healthcare package.

You may laugh, but that is what's happening in some schools, where a deal has been struck to offer teachers the sort of incentive normally seen only in the private sector.

"It costs just 95 pence a week - that's less than a lottery ticket," says Jill Gardiner, marketing manager of the Benenden Healthcare Society, a not-for-profit friendly society with 1 million members which has a new package for heads to offer teachers.

Some 80 schools in the UK have now joined the scheme under which schools pay 95 pence a week from their budget for each member of staff. Individuals can then pay to include other members of their families at the same cost.

"It was natural for us to extend into the education sector because our service has traditionally been for public-sector workers such as civil servants and Post Office employees," says Ms Gardiner.

"The cost is the same no matter your age - though you can't join if you are over 65 - and no matter your state of health. But we don't throw existing members out at 65. We're a mutual society, run for the benefit of each other.

"We expect members to try the NHS first, but if they then say they want treatment through us, they get it. We don't make judgments."

Benenden, which is not a private medical insurer, offers diagnostic consultations worth up to pound;450 with NHS-registered consultants as well as treatment and surgery and a health advice line. At around pound;50 a year, the scheme is way below the pound;300 average cost of private insurance schemes.

Mutual societies have a long tradition in the UK of offering healthcare for members of particular professions. Many, such as Clerical Medical, NFU Mutual, Teachers Life, and Legal amp; General, have opened their business to all, but several still focus on a specific sector. Dentists, police and railwaymen seem particularly well catered for.

Mike Millman, head of the 658-pupil Priory school in Dudley, West Midlands, was among the first to join. The scheme covers all 63 of his permanent full- and part-time staff. "Our school is in a challenging area and I'm conscious of the effort teachers put into their work to provide the best education possible for our pupils," he says. "The primary aim was to enhance the school's relationship with staff and to contribute to the school's recruitment and retention strategy."

He looked at several private medical insurers but felt they would take too much money away from the school, and that governors and teachers would feel such a scheme was inappropriate for the public sector. Then he found Benenden's stand at a conference held by the National Association of Head Teachers.

Priory's scheme, which has been running for three years, offers membership to all permanent employees who have worked at the school for at least six months, including cleaning and catering staff. Some have extended membership to their families.

"Staff feel valued by the school and are glad to have the additional support of healthcare," says Mr Millman. "I have also noticed positive reactions to the scheme during interviews with prospective employees who have said that society membership says a lot about the school's attitude to staff."

But Stephen Adamson, vice-chairman of the National Association of Governors and Managers, says heads should be cautious about offering employees private healthcare, especially if it is not being offered to the whole staff.

"I would advise any governing body to think hard about this," he says. "Is it the best use of their financial resources? It is a long-term commitment to these staff - once the benefit has been bestowed it is difficult to remove it.

"And it could be divisive. In private companies, such schemes are normally given only to senior managers. But in a school, those teachers who don't get the benefit - and that's the majority - will feel that they are being told they are not as important as those who do."

Benenden Healthcare, whose members also include BTand local authority employees, was set up 100 years ago to help fight a tuberculosis epidemic among postal workers. Today it regards itself as complementing the NHSwhen members are experiencing "difficulty resolving their health problems"

What's on offer

* Diagnostic consultations for any condition can be arranged through the member's GP or from one of Benenden's consultants

* Most general surgery can be performed at Benenden Hospital in Kent, or at one of its regional surgical centres

* No medical examination is required when applying to join the scheme

* Surgery bills are settled with the hospitall No exclusions for pre-existing conditions.

* No increase in contributions with age

* All members pay the same rate per person per week

* All benefits are included in one price

* No overall cash limit on the cost of the treatment members receive.

* There is a cancer care support service

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