Rising teacher stress linked to Tory legislation

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CHRIS BLACKHURST Westminster Correspondent

Half the teachers retiring early on grounds of ill-health are doing so because of stress and anxiety, mainly brought about by the Government's education reforms, it was admitted yesterday.

Michael Bichard, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, told MPs that of the 6,075 teachers who took early retirement last year, more than 3,000 were over-stressed. The next highest causes, back problems and heart disease, said Mr Bichard, accounted for just 300 to 400.

"The major cause of ill-health retirements is stress," said Mr Bichard. Asked for an explanation, the senior civil servant at the department attributed the problem to "pressure on teachers at the moment".

Mr Bichard said the figures had increased following two major pieces of legislation, the Education Reform Act in 1988 and the Further Education Act in 1992. There had been a "lot of change and restructuring", said Mr Bichard, so the rise was "not surprising".

Of the 6,075 who left because of ill-health last year, only 222 were from the independent sector. Over 35 per cent of the total, said Mr Bichard, came from the 50 to 54 age group; 26 per cent from 55-to 59 year-olds and 24 per cent from 45- to 49-year-olds.

Replying to questions from the Commons Public Accounts Committee examining a report showing a more than doubling in the number of teachers retiring on health grounds over the past decade and highlighting the financial strains this caused, Mr Bichard said departures through poor health were also rising elsewhere in the public sector.

Compared with the civil service and NHS, the overall totals of teachers opting for early retirement - which includes ill-health - had barely changed: 3 per cent, versus 288 per cent increases in the Civil Service and 84 per cent in the NHS.

Teachers opting for early retirement were putting pressure on the public purse: the Government Actuary makes assessments every five years and the last study, for the period ending 31 March 1986, disclosed a shortfall in the teachers' superannuation scheme of pounds 1.5bn.

That figure will now be higher, but MPs demanded to know why that was the most recent study. The delay, admitted Mr Bichard, under questioning by Alan Williams, Labour MP for Swansea West, was brought about by computer failure. A new computer system designed to improve information collection did not work and was now the subject of litigation between the Department and Hoskyns, the company which won the order.

Angela Eagle, the Labour MP for Wallasey, asked if ill-health was not being used as "a roundabout way of making redundancies?".

Mr Bichard replied the system had been tightened up with medical advisers now based at the Teachers' Pensions Agency. The number of rejected applications had risen from 3 per cent to 10 per cent in the past year.