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Officers tell of pension row fears

Senior education officials have warned ministers that children's education could suffer if teachers are forced to stay in the job until 60.

With an estimated 11,250 to 17,500 teachers trying to leave the profession by March 31 before pension rules are changed, the Society of Education Officers has told the Government it must consider the consequences of its actions. "Keeping reluctant old bodies in front of classes is no answer to possible future teacher shortages," it said.

Teachers and lecturers will march through London tomorrow in protest at proposals that are expected to clamp down on early retirement. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers also anticipates that its High Court challenge will resume on Thursday.

Ministers want to shift part of the responsibility for pension costs to schools, colleges and local authorities, a move expected to end early retirement for thousands of teachers.

The SEO, whose members will have to manage changes to the scheme on behalf of local authorities, said there was evidence that a large number of teachers lost energy and capacity to teach until the age of 60. "Expectations have built up that opportunities for premature retirement will be available and a cutback on the scale now envisaged will be harmful to children."

The standing conference for Chief Education Officers has called for a study for what should be a reasonable period of service for a teacher to spend on class teaching.

"Current pension arrangements are based on an expected length of service of between 35 and 40 years," it said. "Arguably, this is too long and in many cases mitigates against maintenance of a high quality of education in all schools. "

The SEO and the standing conference criticised the way the Government had handled its proposals to change pension rules, and urged ministers not to implement them in April. LEA leaders are hopeful they can get the date deferred until September.

The SEO said that given more time it was possible that premature retirement with reduced benefits might be attractive for some teachers, and enable schools to restructure without prohibitive costs.

Alternatively, it said, early retirements could be funded by a general contribution from employers' and through a reduced charge.

The standing conference said LEAs needed time to consult with governors, professiona l associations and heads about the most effective way to manage early retirement s without damaging the service. It claimed assumptions by civil servants that the changes would lead to a 45 per cent reduction in the number of early retirements were flawed and not founded on any evidence.

Ministers are pushing for change on pensions amid fears of a teacher shortage and concern about the spiralling cost to central government of early retirement arrangements (#163;480 million last year).

Local authorities and grant-maintained schools only have to pay for enhancing the pension of a teacher who retires early. The lump sum and basic pension are paid by the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme.

Ministers propose that employers pay part of both the lump sum and basic pension of teachers which would mean they could no longer offer enhancement.

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