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The gentle art of graceful retirement

As schools scramble to unload staff in order to balance budgets this year, the only potential beneficiaries will be those teachers who see an opportunity to take early retirement with enhancement.

An attractive option which many thought had disappeared is suddenly within the grasp of such teachers. Volunteering for early retirement when their school is desperate to make savings as painlessly as possible will produce financial benefits as well as the glow which comes from self-sacrifice.

This September, many teachers who might have expected to soldier on despite, in many cases, waning powers and interest will view the start of a new school year with equanimity.

But is their optimism justified? For some, a golden third age will dawn. For others, who may not have prepared for their retirement, seeing it simply as an escape route, the new status may prove less enchanting than they imagined.

David Prothero is one of those. After several years of indifferent health brought on, he believed, by the stress of teaching, he volunteered to retire at 54. Because the school needed to cut back, he was offered an enhanced pension and lump sum in addition to redundancy payments.

"I just wanted out," he says now. "I'd had enough. I didn't think at all about what it would mean. And the money seemed all right." His wife Jane continued her teaching job.

"That was the first difficult moment, when Jane went off to school on the first day of term and I stayed home," he said. We'd been setting off together for most of our 30 years in teaching. Now I was at home and without a car.

He also had no real idea what to do with his time. School had used up so much of his energy that he had never developed other interests. Nor, he realised, had he many friends who were also free during the day. "I'd vaguely thought I might do a bit of supply teaching but, despite getting my name on the list, the phone never rang."

With no structure to his day, David became depressed. This led to anger when Jane wanted to talk about what she had been doing at school. "I had nothing to tell her," he remembers. "I hadn't done anything except go for a walk and cook the evening meal.

"Perhaps if I'd taught one of the practical subjects, I'd have been able to use those skills around the house or doing jobs for other people. But I thought, 'history - there's not much you can do with that'."

In fact, there was. A chance remark by a friend and a book David found in the library sparked an interest in family history. He researched his own ancestors and traced a detailed family tree, then started doing the same for others. He spends hours in the county records office and has become friendly with the staff there. He has also contributed an article on his research to a national magazine. He is now happy with his new life.

"But for quite a while I thought taking early retirement was the worst thing I could have done," he said. "Without preparation it's like falling into a vacuum."

George White is so well prepared that he can't wait to leave his job as deputy head of a primary school. "I'm not even too worried about the money," he says, "as long as they'll let me go."

As well as pursuing his passion for steam railways and jazz, George paints watercolours, enjoys gardening, volunteers at his local hospital and does many of the chores around the house he shares with his disabled wife Elsie. "I often say I don't have time to go to work, " he jokes. "I'm looking forward to being able to plan my time. When you've got a demanding job, you're always having to compromise on the other bits of your life. I haven't played at the jazz club for months."

George and Elsie also have plans to travel. "Somehow it has seemed too difficult to go very far in the time available. Now that won't be a barrier and we'll get cheaper fares. We're planning to be away for a couple of months every year."

George has worked out the finances carefully, too, so he knows what they can afford: "Not luxury, but reasonable comfort."

The importance of preparation for a major life change is stressed on pre-retirement courses. It's not just filling time that people find hard. Some can suffer from loss of status and companionship. Having colleagues is something we take for granted. Without them life can seem bleak.

That's a lesson which all those fiftysomethings queueing up to benefit from the present underfunding catastrophe should consider carefully before they accept the inducements to leave.

The names in this article have been changed. Mike Fielding is principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon.

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