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Escape from the great classroom burn-out

Susannah Kirkman examines the options facing older teachers who want to step off the treadmill.

THE tightening-up of regulations on early retirement means that teachers in their 50s are now having to find other ways to escape burn-out.

Unions say that an increasing number of older teachers are applying for less demanding teaching jobs. Others are opting for job shares or are leaving teaching and putting their pensions on hold.

Since 1993, at least 20,000 teachers in their 50s have simply left full-time teaching, deferring their pensions until retirement age, according to the Department for Education and Employment. "Some are so desperate that they are leaving with nothing to go to," says Susan Johnson, head of pensions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "One 55-year-old teacher said she might work in Tesco when she leaves at the end of this term."

Many will claim only an actuarially-reduced pension if they cannot get enough supply work, according to the ATL. Teachers can claim a reduced pension at any time after the age of 55 once they have left full-time teaching.

So far, fewer than 500 teachers have opted for the actuarially-reduced pension introduced by Teachers' Pensions last year for 55 to 59-year-olds. "They have obviously rejected it because it is a lousy deal," says Barry Fawcett at the National Union of Teachers. Someone leaving teaching four years early, for instance, could lose at least 20 per cent of their pension.

The figures show that, on average, teachers taking premature retirement last year received an annual pension that was around pound;1,100 lower than that paid to teachers who left early in 1997. Pensions can be supplemented through supply work. But there are strict limits to the amounts that teachers can earn before their pension is affected.

Stepping down to a less demanding post can seem more attractive. The unions say there has been a steep rise in enquiries about this option becaus teachers are allowed to relinquish a post of responsibility while safeguarding their pensions.

Job shares are another increasingly popular alternative to early retirement. The National Association of Headteachers has just negotiated a job share for a 58-year-old primary head and her deputy, who will be the acting headteacher for two-and-a-half days a week. "Why should someone burn themselves out if it's possible to make a positive arrangement which will benefit the school as well as the teacher?" asks Kerry George, the union's senior salaries official.

Teachers considering any of these options are advised to consult their unions about the implications for their pensions. The ATL publishes two useful leaflets, "Re-employment after Retirement" and "Taking a Drop in Salary," free to members. Non-members can buy them through the union. Tel: 020 7930 6441.


How can I protect my pension if I take a teaching job after retirement?

You must not earn more than your "salary of reference"- the highest rate of salary received in the three years before you retired. This is increased in line with the percentage rise applied to teachers' pensions. If you earn more than this limit, your pension can be reduced or suspended. You can find out your salary of reference by applying to Teachers' Pensions, Mowden Hall, Darlington DL3 9EE.

How will "stepping down" to a less responsible post affect my pension?

If you are still working full-time, you can elect to pay contributions on your former higher salary. This is only worth doing if your new salary is unlikely to overtake your old salary through inflation.

Otherwise, you can opt for your pension to be calculated differently, keeping intact the pension benefits you have earned so far. This system is very complex, so it is essential to take advice from your union.

How much will I lose through an actuarially-reduced pension if I leave early?

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