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Health enquiries and applicants for work

Clarification of the circumstances in which existing and prospective employers are entitled to make enquiries about a worker’s health.

There are regulations setting out activities which teachers must have “the health and physical capacity to carry out”, such as planning, preparing and delivering lessons.

The regulations do not say how an employer should go about determining whether a job applicant has the health and physical capacity to carry out the activities specified. There is no general health standard that teachers must meet.

Teachers and trainees are required to be able to carry out the activities set out in regulations, no more and no less. Whether that requires a high standard of physical and mental fitness will depend on the requirements of the job concerned.

Enquiries about your health will normally be made as part of the process of pre-employment checks once you are appointed. Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) says that where teachers are changing schools a “medical adviser may, where it seems reasonable, consider medical records from previous employment to decide that the person is fit to teach”. 

For newly qualified teachers, the guidance says that a “medical adviser should obtain details of the applicant’s medical history from the medical adviser to the training provider”. These steps are recommended only once an applicant is appointed subject to satisfactory health checks. 

The NEU believes the practice by some employers of issuing pre-employment health questionnaires to all job applicants, rather than to the successful job applicant(s), is likely to be unlawful. If you are asked to complete a pre-employment health questionnaire at the job application stage, it is for you to decide whether to complete it – but inform the union of this practice so it can be raised with the employer separately.

Any question in a job application form relating to sickness absence amounts to a pre-employment health enquiry and is likely to be prohibited under the Equality Act. You may decide to answer the question if you feel that answering it will not damage your prospects of being shortlisted for interview, but you are not obliged to do so. 

In any event, inform the union of this practice so it can be raised with the employer separately.

Questions about disability and health can be asked prior to appointment for the purpose of monitoring the diversity of job applicants. Schools and local authorities which sign up to the Disability Confident scheme, for example, may refer to completed equality monitoring forms prior to interview to ensure that disabled applicants who meet the minimum requirements for the post are shortlisted for interview.

This is likely to be a pre-employment health enquiry within the meaning of the Equality Act and is prohibited. It may be capable of justification in the light of the Health Standards Regulations which expressly provide that a teacher in receipt of an ill-health pension is not to be regarded as having the health and physical capacity to teach.

There is an exception in relation to teachers who took up ill-health retirement benefits before 1 April 1997. If an application form asks you whether you are in receipt of an ill-health retirement pension but does not ask whether you took retirement before 1997, contact the union.

The practice by some employers of seeking references (including capability-related information) early in the recruitment process may require amendment to ensure that your health information is not disclosed to a prospective employer prior to your appointment. Contact the union if your health condition was disclosed in references to a prospective employer before the successful applicant was appointed.

Yes, it may, particularly if it has been several years since you were last required to complete a health questionnaire and changes in your health status relevant to fitness to teach have occurred without the knowledge of your existing employer.

Your existing or prospective employer should follow the steps outlined below:

  • You should be issued with a pre-employment health questionnaire after you have received a provisional offer of appointment.
  • Your completed questionnaire should be returned direct to your existing or prospective employer’s medical/occupational health adviser for assessment.
  • If further medical evidence is required or a specialist appointment is necessary, this should be discussed with you.
  • The medical adviser should consider whether any reasonable adjustments need to be made. If this is the case, the medical adviser should advise your existing/prospective employer.
  • The medical adviser should provide a recommendation as to whether you are fit to teach. They should provide your employer with a full explanation along with their recommendation.

The final decision about appointment rests with your employer, taking account of their duty under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments.

Schools and colleges are advised in DfE guidance to “seek evidence that the agency has checked the teachers’ medical fitness”. The NEU recommends that the following procedure should be followed when a teacher registers with an agency:

  • The teacher should be required to complete a health questionnaire which should be sent direct to the agency’s medical adviser for review.
  • The agency’s medical adviser should, with the individual’s written consent, request their occupational health record from the previous employer.

Agencies are prohibited by the Equality Act from making pre-employment health enquiries prior to registering a teacher or teaching assistant. They are permitted to ask health questions once a teacher or teaching assistant is “included in a pool of successful candidates to be offered a job when a suitable position arises”. 

Contact the union if an employment agency asks you to complete a health questionnaire prior to registration.

The NEU takes the view that any enquiries about a person’s health at interview should be challenged, particularly in relation to people whose medical history is known to the employer or to people with visible disabilities. 

If you are asked about your health at interview, it is for you to decide whether it would be in your interests to reply or not. You should notify the union so that the matter may be raised with the employer separately.

If you are asked to undertake a test or give a presentation as part of the interview process, you should ideally be notified of this in advance and offered an opportunity to ask for reasonable adjustments to be made. The union believes shortlisted teachers and teaching assistants should be asked when invited to interview if they require any special equipment or arrangements to be made for the interview.

Yes, your employer or prospective employer may refer you to occupational health once you have been appointed. Currently, there is nothing in law to prevent employers from referring successful applicants to occupational health as a matter of course.

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