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It pays to master self-assessment

Self-assessment of tax is about to recast the Inland Revenue as a giant auditor checking on people's calculations of their own tax liability. By shifting the onus for paperwork from a state agency to individuals, self-assessment is, in effect, a privatisation of bureaucracy.

Dummy-run tax forms sprout inscrutable schedules and lengthy guidance notes which will make national curriculum bumf look like Janet and John. Though these fat forms won't be issued until April 1997, the new rules will apply to the tax year beginning April 6, 1996. Time, therefore, to start thinking about taxing questions.

Virtually all teachers will continue having their income tax deducted at source. Teachers are, to use the quaintly accurate Revenue jargon, in a master-servant relationship and must submit themselves to Pay As You Earn.

The minority of teachers lucky enough to have sizeable outside sources of income will, however, have to learn something of self-assessment. So too will peripatetic music and language teachers who can register as self-employed.

The general rule here is that the greater the non-teaching earnings the more likely it is that an accountant is sorting out tax. As The TES reported on January 26, accountants also loom large in the lives of Australian and New Zealand teachers in Britain who operate as limited companies.

All such accountant-friendly groups can face self-assessment with the calm of those who employ experts, although their calm could be shattered if the new tax returns cost them an arm as well as a leg to complete.

But bigger tax forms won't necessarily equal bigger accountancy bills, according to Martin Benson, who proffers tax advice to employers and employees on behalf of the accountancy firm Coopers and Lybrand. He predicts that high-street tax shops will offer standardised tax accounting tailored to groups such as teachers for perhaps Pounds 50 or Pounds 60.

Mr Benson adds that self-assessment will have more impact on teachers than people expect and that its complexities will most affect the richest and poorest. Headteachers, who invariably fall into the 40 per cent tax band, are more than likely to get an annual tax return, if only to declare greater chunks of their dividend and interest earnings. They, therefore, will have to find ways of managing a yet greater density of bureaucracy.

At the other end of the scale, a lot of supply teachers "overpay through ignorance of the tax system", Mr Benson says. Those earning under Pounds 7,000 a year, especially if it's from more than one local education authority, still pay 25 per cent at source. If the cheaper, production-line style of accounting takes hold they may finally get round to doing something about that.

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