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'This came as a bolt out of the blue'

A three-page special report by Elaine Williams on how new pension rules might wreck prospects for early retirement. INDEPENDENTSGM SCHOOLS. Early retirement in independent schools will be turned off like a tap if the Government's proposals go ahead, according to one of the sector's leading headteachers.

Christopher Martin, the headmaster of Millfield School, said that no independent school would be able to fund the long-term costs of the employer's slice of pensions until death. As employers they will bear the full financial brunt of the recommendations.

He said: "This came as a bolt out of the blue. We saw an exit point closed very suddenly last Friday. Anyone who will be 50 or more on April 1 now has to make a decision to go much earlier or to go to 60. " Out of 170 staff at Millfield 41 fall into that category. Mr Martin said: "We don't want them to leave. Some of them are our best teachers but I am sure there will be a cluster who will want to go now.

"We had a pension scheme with a set of rules. With the flick of a Ministerial wrist a major part of this has been changed." Mr Martin was particularly concerned for those teachers whose early retirement for July had been agreed and whose posts had already been filled.

Dr Arthur Hearnden, general secretary of the Independent Schools Joint Council, said this could have a devastating effect on small schools. He said: "If you have already agreed early retirement and appointed somebody else then you cannot go back on that agreement, but small schools on a tight budget cannot possibly afford this kind of pay-out."

The proposal is also likely to severely hamper schools' ability to restructure or to merge, a marked feature of the independent boarding sector in particular in recent years. At least seven schools closed and five merged last year alone. David Teall, headmaster of Battle Abbey School in Hastings, said: "The DFEE has said it cannot go on subsidising independent schools in this way. But it is not a subsidy. It is a fully contributory scheme. We should not pay because somebody has got their sums wrong."

Dr Hearnden concurred: "When you get into that kind of situation then you normally try to phase in an arrangement, not move the goalposts suddenly. " The DFEE believes, however, that its consultation time is perfectly adequate, if not generous, for such a proposal.

Independent school representatives will be approaching Ministers with alternative recommendations which may include increasing employers' contributions and allowing early retirement only from the age of 55.

Grant-maintained schools are also concerned as they too are classed as employers, although early retirement with four years' enhancement is currently provided for specific restructuring by the Funding Agency for Schools.

George Phipson, chairman of the Association of Heads of Grant Maintained Schools, said schools were unclear as to whether the proposals would be covered by the Special Purpose Grant for Restructuring (SPGR).

He also pointed out that having to keep people at the top end of the pay scale would increase salary bills and therefore offset any savings made by the reduction in employers' contributions to the TSS. "There needs to be an increase in the Government's Standard Spending Assessment to cover that, " he said."Many heads have contacted me - they are very worried by the speed with which this is being brought in.

"The GM sector is not just large secondaries but small primaries. Any savings in contributions for them would in no way meet the cost of releasing a teacher early."

The DFEE responded quickly to these concerns by saying that provision would be made in the budget to cover these new proposals under SPGR. A DFEE spokesman said: "We recognise the difficulties that GM schools have and we expect there to be a level playing-field between grant-maintained schools and LEA schools. The FAS will emulate what local authorities can offer."

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