Teachers risk dying in classrooms if illnesses ignored, union told

Richard Adams in Belfast

Teachers in the UK run the risk of “dying in their classrooms” if they are forced to work through serious illnesses, a teaching union conference has been told after a member revealed dramatic evidence.

Neil Jeffrey, a secondary school teacher, opened his shirt to show the scars left by a triple heart bypass operation he underwent 10 weeks ago, during a debate on a motion about age discrimination against older teachers.

“The longer teachers have to work, the greater the chance of them ending up with unwanted body art like this,” said Jeffrey, 49, who told delegates at the NASUWT annual conference in Belfast that he was expected to return to work at the start of May.

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“We need to make sure we urge the union to monitor the incidents of serious illness amongst our colleagues so that every single teacher who had a health event or incident, for want of a better word, gets the fabulous support they need, just as I did. If not we run a serious risk not just of people working longer and retiring later, but of people retiring later and dying in their classrooms,” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey had been head of modern languages at the Oxford Academy secondary school before his heart attack last year. He said he was stepping down from the role as a result of his operation but would remain a classroom teacher.

A motion passed by the NASUWT condemned “the fostering of a culture of ‘work until you drop’” in UK schools and called for action to stop discrimination against older teachers and for a reduction in teachers’ retirement age.

Chris Keates, the NASUWT’s general secretary, said the union had dealt with cases of blatant age discrimination, including headteachers telling staff over the age of 60 it was time for them to leave.

“Instead of older teachers being valued and their contribution to the school appreciated, they are facing grossly unfair and unacceptable treatment,” Keates said.

“All our evidence shows a catalogue of older teachers being disproportionately placed on capability procedures, denied access to professional development, subject to excessive observation and scrutiny, having pay awards and pay progression withheld and put under intense pressure to leave their job.”

The loss from the profession of teachers of all ages was highlighted by another motion passed by the conference, which said performance-related pay was causing a crisis in retention.

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Jacqueline McNulty, a teacher from Warrington, told delegates that teachers were increasingly leaving after just four or five years in the classroom, having seen what their friends and peers were earning in other professions and, in some cases, the pressures caused by accountability measures based on exam results.

“Teachers should be judged on their performances, not the children’s. Some children will do the business but others will have decided: ‘I’m not going to do the work,’” McNulty said.

Young teachers “need more carrot and less stick,” she told the conference.