Pension advice for Mrs Shephard

The cost of teachers' pensions has risen dramatically recently as increasing numbers leave the profession early. The revenue from employer and employee contributions has never been ambitiously invested, it appears, and payments to retired staff come from mostly revenue rather than investment. The facility to grant early retirement has been built into the scheme but the governors and local education authorities, who approve retirements, had no responsibility to manage the financial results of their decisions.

We are told now that the costs will need to be controlled. The mechanism proposed is to require LEAs to pay a proportion of the pension on a sliding scale - the earlier the retirement, the more they will have to pay. This proposed change will have enormous effects on individual teachers, schools and pupils. It will stall the quest for higher standards and will be a literal death sentence for staff.

The hasty way in which the changes are being moved through has resulted in a huge increase in staff who are old enough applying for early retirement to beat the March 97 deadline. My colleagues are quoting figures of between 10 and 30 per cent of their total staffing figure. The many pages of senior staff vacancies advertised in The TES show the national exodus. Filling huge numbers of posts which will result from the retirements with suitably-qualified staff, especially in shortage subjects and senior positions, will be a nightmare. All will be affected since many more posts will become vacant due to promotions. Schools will experience difficulties filling posts at all levels, including main-scale posts. It is easy to predict that there will be many classes this autumn who will be baby-minded, not taught, as no suitable replacement can be found for teachers who have retired or have left for promoted posts.

This short-term boom in staff movement will diminish teaching quality. In the medium and long term the situation is even worse. Stagnation will follow. Staff who had planned to retire in their 50s will not now be able to do so and have a number of choices. They can leave the profession and take up less stressful work. A large number will do so. Many will attempt to continue to respond professionally to the increasing challenges of the most difficult vocation, and will become ill doing so. The increasing frequency of long-term or intermittent absence will be difficult to manage as will the consequent reduction in the quality of learning. Others will effectively retire but still come to work, presenting one of the most difficult scenarios for senior staff to manage.

The timebomb of the over-commitment of the teachers' pension funding was always ticking and the scheme as it was organised and implemented was flawed. Teaching and managing teaching are vocations that demand the highest levels of dedication, qualification, energy and skill. We must recognise that these qualities, although present in all teachers at high levels, are not endless and unlimited. Teachers who recognise that they can no longer give the service that is needed, apply for early retirement not out of self-interest solely but because of their dedication - none of us wish to contribute to the failure of youngsters in our schools. The exit strategy of early retirement that was used by many staff, headteachers and governors, has helped to raise standards in schools, kept many individuals sane and prolonged their health.

If teachers have been seeking and have been granted early retirement in the past in larger numbers than the scheme can now afford, a more sensible and sensitive solution to the problem than the one being proposed needs to be sought. There are two ways that the Secretary of State can calm the hornet's nest that has been stirred up. She can postpone the implementation until September in order to buy time for herself, schools and individuals caught up in a confused situation. She can call for a new design of the pension arrangements for teachers that retains some of the flexibility and all of the humanity of the previous scheme and is properly funded from the start.

R J DINGLE Headteacher Burnhall Drive Seaham Co Durham

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