How are we supposed to manage?

John Dunford looks at the fall-out from the proposed clampdown on premature retirement.

Headteacher associations have been inundated with calls from schools worried about the short and long-term management difficulties resulting from the proposed changes in the pensions regulations.

The premature retirement compensation scheme which, we are told, has caused all the problems, was not our idea. It was a strategy widely used by employers during a period of falling rolls in schools and colleges, and was as legitimate as ICI or British Airways' use of their pension policies for older employees when both those companies were contracting. The scheme not only helped many teachers to retire early; it also helped schools and colleges to reduce staffing, restructure the teaching force or ease out people who were - usually by their own admission - past their prime.

School and college management is going to become much harder if those who might have taken premature retirement no longer have recourse to this scheme. The unwilling led by the under-resourced is not a happy picture. Redundancy payments, which are to be increased, may provide part of the answer, but many posts - and hence the people occupying them - are not eligible as the postholders would have to be replaced by a new appointment.

Dismissal on the grounds of incompetence is also a solution, but most people who wish to retire remain competent teachers.

Retirement because of ill-health, a third avenue of escape, will be more difficult in the future. This will cause more - and longer - absences from work, with a consequent increase in demand for supply teachers and a reduction in the quality of education.

Under the proposals, teachers who retire on the grounds of ill-health will not be allowed to return to the classroom, thus removing a valuable source of part-time and supply teachers. At Durham Johnston we employ retired teachers to teach specialist A-level subjects for which we do not need a full-time appointment. We know the high quality of their teaching - and it means their skills are not lost to the students.

Prematurely retired staff are also particularly effective for supply teaching. They know the ethos and procedures of the school and we know the quality of their class management skills. They teach, not babysit, and any lack of continuity caused by the full-time teacher's absence is minimised.

This prohibition is particularly severe. It may be justified from time to time, but some teachers who find it impossible to cope with a full-time post, perhaps because of pressures outside school or family illness, can continue to teach effectively part-time. We have such a teacher at Durham Johnston and the school is a better place because he is still able to work there.

The way in which the announcement was made after the teachers' resignation deadline of October 31 - and the "clarifications" in the December letter from the DFEE - have caused maximum anxiety and disruption. School and college leaders have been faced with unprecedented problems in planning for September. The unanswered questions are:

* Will teachers who wish to retire prematurely on March 31 be allowed to do so?

* Can we waive the normal period of notice?

* If so, who will teach their timetable for the summer term?

* Can they be re-employed - for one term?

* Can they be re-employed for the following year?

* When will it be safe to start appointing replacements?

* Will we be able to find replacements?

* Can we bring forward a redundancy from August 31 to March 31?

* If not, is there enough time remaining to carry out the redundancy procedures?

Already we have seen a marked increase in the number of advertisements in The TES. In March and April, even if we are mentally strong enough to read the paper, will we be physically strong enough to lift it?

When the rush of retiring heads and principals is replaced by a stream of successful middle-managers and they are replaced by successful teachers. . .where will we find the next generation of teachers? It is doubtful whether this process will be completed by October, although many supply teachers will be needed for the next academic year.

Now that the spurious consultation has ended, there must be a speedy announcement of the Government's intentions. If schools are to be managed sensibly this year, we need a sympathetic approach to the short-term problems. A postponement until September would be a small, but sensible, move. Phasing-in of the changes over three years would be better still.

Curriculum change, which is always with us, necessitates staff restructuring - premature retirement has proved to be a sensible way of doing this and is essential for the proper management of schools and colleges, and for the maintenance of a well-balanced and effective staffing structure.

John Dunford, head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, was president of the Secondary Heads Association in 1995-96

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