Out with the old, in with...?

A change to the pension rules has led to a headlong rush of teachers hoping to qualify for early retirement. The result, reports Maureen O'Connor, has been chaos and confusion
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The Independent Online
At a primary school in Leicestershire 30 per cent of the teaching staff have handed in their notice. In the Isle of Wight applications from many of the area's most senior teachers for early retirement have doubled. All the teachers unions are being inundated with angry calls from teachers in their forties and fifties who feel their future lives have just been seriously disrupted.

This week the headteachers have announced action to disrupt teacher training. Next week the Association of Teachers and Lecturers will take the Secretary of State for Education to court. Both actions have been provoked by Gillian Shephard's attempt to block the Gadarene rush for early retirement which began before Christmas.

The cause of all this sound and fury is a little noticed change in the rules for teachers' retirement introduced at very short notice and with minimal consultation at the end of last year. When teachers began to decide in their thousands that they had better leave sooner rather than later, the DfEE reminded employers that they had to justify early teacher retirements under the pension scheme rules and that letting too many staff go early might cost them money.

Until now the cost of early retirement has been borne by the teachers' pension fund. In future, however, the cost will have to be carried by employers, in this case schools or local education authorities, many of whom say categorically that they cannot afford it.

There is little doubt that this change will greatly reduce the number of early retirements, now the most common way for teachers to leave the profession. So confident is the Government that teachers in their fifties will now have to stay on that it has cut teacher-training places on the grounds that there will be less need for new recruits. All this may look like a good thing if you expect, as the Government does, to be retaining high-quality senior teachers in the classrooms; less good if those who do stay, as many headteachers fear, are burned-out cases.

The obscure change to the pension rules is already threatening to have a devastating effect on schools in some parts of the country. The immediate problem is that if employers are prepared to be flexible about notice dates, and ignore the DfEE's advice, there is still just time for staff in their fifties to get out "under the wire".

According to the teachers unions, double the number of teachers are seeking early retirement this year. Most of them want to leave their schools on March 31, just before the proposed new regulations come into force. It is symptomatic of the speed at which the change will be introduced that the consultation period does not end until January 17, a month after the last date upon which teachers can technically resign in order to leave at Easter.

But there is a downside to employer generosity to long-serving staff who want to go immediately on existing terms. If they leave at Easter, schools will find themselves bereft of experienced teachers just as the revision and examination season begins. Some LEAs may find themselves in the absurd situation of seeing teachers retire one day and having to re-hire them on part-time contracts the next to get the schools through the summer term. This is what the DfEE suggests may be bending the rules too far.

"The management problems which an exodus will impose are enormous," says John Sutton of the Secondary Heads Association. "Heads are feeling very angry, as much about the way this has been sprung on schools as about the principle. The immediate problem is the effect on people who had made plans for the next few years and now find things are not as they thought they were. In the longer term you will get an increasing number of frustrated and burnt-out older teachers in the schools, blocking promotion opportunities for those coming up behind."

"There is panic and pressure in staff-rooms because people have been so badly informed about this," says one union official who is dealing with non-stop calls from anxious colleagues. "Stress levels are already phenomenal. You are now expecting people who are already starting to go under to carry on for years. How are people going to cope?"

There is particular anger among teachers who have paid extra into the pension fund with the intention of improving their financial situation if they retire early. Tony Critchlow, who teaches in York, a small new authority which seems unlikely to be able to afford an early retirement scheme in the future, says that people like him feel "conned".

"People have paid an extra five years' contributions so that they can leave at 55, and now they won't be able to benefit from that. The money is locked up until they are 60. On top of that most people who study these things know that if you do work until you are 60 there's a much higher chance that you'll be dead within five years. The police and the fire brigade can retire at 55. I don't see why teachers shouldn't."

In the Isle of Wight, which has an unusually stable and older-than-average teaching force, the change is devastating schools, according to the local NASUWT official David Porter. "The LEA here has never offered very generous early retirement terms because it could not afford to and it certainly cannot afford to take on open-ended pension commitments in future. Applications to go before the rules change are already running at double last year's rate with a couple of weeks of an extended notice period still left to run. One of our high schools has six of its senior staff anxious to go and probably more in the pipeline."

The unions accept that early retirement has never been a right. But in difficult times it has been used as a civilised way of easing out teachers who might otherwise be made redundant or those who had lost their enthusiasm, enabling schools to replace them with younger, more energetic, and not to put too fine a point on it, cheaper staff.

This has become so "normal" that most teachers now have a "game plan" for the years between 50 and 60, according to Ted Griffiths, a secondary school chemistry teacher in Leicestershire who is also chair of governors at his local primary school. "I am not sure I know anyone who has stayed in teaching until 60 recently. There is general disillusionment and stress caused by all the Government's changes, and now a scramble to get out."

Quite apart from the anger of individual teachers, there is real concern at national level that effectively insisting that all teachers serve until they are 60 will damage the profession and children's education with it. Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers questions the Government's claim that the move is intended to keep more experienced teachers in schools.

"That would sound more sincere and be better achieved by ending the stresses and strains which have made teachers feel the need to leave early. Tired and demoralised teachers will be forced to stay. The pressure could lead to even more teachers cracking under the strain and leaving on breakdown pensions."

As Ted Griffiths puts it: "If the measures are implemented, many staff- rooms will become more like pre-geriatric nursing homes than the exciting, stimulating places that help to generate good teaching."

At the other end of the age range, teacher trainers are devastated by the sudden reduction in intake numbers announced in November along with a cut of pounds 13m in the Teacher Training Agency's budget. After planning for an increase of 26 per cent in primary teacher students, the departments are now being asked to make a 6 per cent cut. At secondary level an increase of almost 30 per cent has been reduced to 2 per cent.

According to Professor Bill Wardle of King Alfred's College, Winchester, the effects of these cuts will be devastating both for teacher supply and for the quality of teaching in the schools. "Issues of class size and the quality of teaching are close to the nation's heart," he says. "It looks as if a major and damaging policy decision in respect of teacher education has been made for unconnected budgetary reasons."

The root of the problem, according to Brian Clegg, pensions expert with the NASUWT, is a teachers' pension scheme run in a way which might have appealed to Robert Maxwell. Since the 1950s the money invested by the Government on behalf of teachers and their employers has accrued interest at such a derisory rate that liabilities now far exceed the value of the fund.

"There is a real problem with all the public sector pension schemes because they have never been properly invested. But because this has never been tackled we now find ourselves facing a crisis situation in which the Government is playing politics with people's careers and children's educationn

Gwyneth Reed is 53 and an enthusiastic primary school class teacher. Last term she found herself with only a few weeks to make up her mind whether to give up her much loved career now, or soldier on until she is 60. Because her husband is older than she is and has already retired, she decided to go now - one of three staff at Desford Primary School in Leicestershire, from a total of nine, who resigned at Christmas.

Mrs Reed is resentful at the way her life has been turned upside down by the changes in the pensions regulations. "Of course, the job is stressful, but I am not stressed out. I really love the children. I run the school's cross-country running and train around 40 of them at any one time. I take at least 25 of them to cross-country meetings regularly on Saturday mornings. I enjoy my job and feel I still have a lot to give.

"But at my age you have to look ahead. I had hoped to teach for another two or three years and then retire while my husband and I still have the time to enjoy life and do the things we want to do.

"This was a very upsetting and desperately difficult decision to make. It caused me sleepless nights. I feel it is unprofessional to go in the middle of a school year, and I very much hope I can come back part time in the summer term to give the children some continuity.

"This has disrupted people's lives. We will be living on less money than we'd hoped. And I will miss the children desperately"n

Ken Price is the deputy head of a large and flourishing secondary school in the south of England. He is just over 50 and was hoping to retire in four or five years' time to complete work on a doctorate and perhaps continue as a teacher trainer and an Ofsted inspector at a more leisurely pace. "I am now facing a desperate dilemma because if I don't go immediately I will most likely be locked into my job until I am 60. I really don't want to go while I think I am doing a good job, but I am not so sure that I will still be so effective at 55.

"I am particularly angry because, like many teachers, I took advantage of the chance to make extra pension contributions specifically to make it easier to retire early. Now that money is locked up for 10 years. If I had invested it privately, I could use it to bridge the gap between going early, as I planned, and getting my pension.

"Teachers' pensions don't compare well with many private schemes. I am disgusted that they now seem to have changed the rules of the game half- way through"