The Government retorted last night that teachers had no right to regard enhanced pension payments as one of the perks of their job. Last year, more than three-quarters of those who left the profession went between the ages of 50 and 60, at a cost of pounds 480m.
Yesterday, headteachers claimed the plan to cut early retirements from 13,000 per year to 9,750 within two years was no more than a ruse by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to cut spending before this month's Budget. They said the Treasury would save pounds 100m immediately by making teachers' employers responsible for part of their pension payments.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said teachers would be forced to carry on, despite being "demoralised, demotivated and depressed."
"This money will go into the Treasury pot and will be used to finance tax cuts," he said.
Tom Weston, a member of the association's national council and head of Shavington Primary School, near Crewe, in Cheshire, said that at 56 he and many of his colleagues who had put off early retirement would regret staying on beyond 50.
"We stayed because we love the job. We paid voluntary contributions to enable us to go with a full pension at 55, 56 or 58. I think this is immoral and I feel very bitter about it," he said.
The Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, Don Foster, backed teachers last night, saying the Government had caused a recruitment crisis and was now forcing teachers to stay on to cope with it.
"The Government expects more and more of teachers with less and less. It is no wonder there is such an increase of demoralised teachers suffering stress-related illnesses and taking early retirement," he said.
Labour said simply that teachers, the Government and local authorities should sit down and discuss the problem. The party's education spokesman, David Blunkett, has called for action to be taken over an almost tenfold increase in early retirements since 1978.
However, a spokesman for the Department of Education and Employment said teachers should not regard early retirement as part of the terms of their employment.
"Why should teachers be treated as a special case and be allowed to retire early? Early retirement was never intended to be a right or even a benefit. Too many high quality teachers have been lost," he said.
Premature retirement would not be ended by the Government's proposals, he said. Funding for employers assumed they would continue at 75 per cent of the present rate in 1997/98.
He denied that insufficient effort was being made to attract new graduates into the profession. Wage rates for teachers had risen by 59 per cent since 1979, compared with 47 per cent for all non-manual workers.
He said it was "not realistic or sensible to seek to recruit huge numbers of graduates in a few years. That would just ... leave us facing the same problems in 30 years' time."
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers also attacked the plans, saying it would make it more difficult for sick teachers to get ill-health retirement.
Sue Johnson, head of the union's pensions department, said ministers should look at why young graduates did not seek to go into teaching. "It cannot be in the best interests of pupils for them to be taught by teachers chained to their jobs to the bitter end," she said.