Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, issued new guidance to all schools and colleges making it clear it was for them, not her department, to take decisions on early retirement. The move averted High Court challenges to the attempted clampdown by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).
Schools will now be able to grant the requests of an estimated 13,000 staff to leave before Easter, when the Government plans to impose tough new pension regulations.
Under the proposed reforms, which are not affected by yesterday's concession, the cost burden of early retirement will be transferred from the teachers' pension scheme to employers, making it prohibitively expensive for many schools and colleges.
The Government's announcement of its plans last autumn provoked panic among teachers, with many opting to dash for the school gates before the Easter deadline. Guidance sent out by ministers last month in an attempt to prevent the exodus which was watered down in the letter issued yesterday.
The 150,000-strong ATL, which won permission two weeks ago for a legal challenge to the guidance, was yesterday jubilant at the climbdown. Peter Smith, the association's general secretary, said: "Teachers and lecturers all over the country will now be relieved to know their rights to early retirement this term remain untouched.
"This is a hard-won victory for common sense. I welcome the Government's move but it is a pity the DfEE [Department for Education and Employment] had to be hauled to the High Court before it could admit to the confusion."
Brian Clegg, NASUWT assistant secretary, said yesterday: "The Government quite clearly tried to frighten employers from granting the enormous number of early retirement applications which have been made. Tonight they have ... totally capitulated."
Mrs Shephard's concession means that employers will no longer have to deny any teacher the right to early retirement because they plan to re- employ them as supply staff for the summer term. Unions have argued that the original guidance effectively removed employers' power to make decisions over retirement, and handed it to the Department for Education.
The retreat makes no difference to the plans to change the pension rules from Easter. The Government wants to introduce its reforms as soon as possible to avoid further drains on the pension fund and halt the exodus of experienced teachers.Despite calls for delays by unions, four out of five staff leave while still in their fifties.
Mrs Shephard yesterday insisted that her department's position had not changed. The new letter was intended to clear up confusion over planned changes to pension regulations, she said. "My department's position on early retirement has remained unchanged since we first issued our consultation on 22 October. I want to make it absolutely clear that we do not plan to stop early retirement. There will continue to be opportunities for teachers to take early retirement."
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