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Pension penury;Opinion

No one likes to think about death - and teachers are no exception. But one result of not checking one's pension entitlements is that the widows and widowers of many teachers are in dire financial straits. Teachers' benevolent funds, we are told, regularly pay out grants for such basic items as school uniform and children's shoes.

This news will shock many in the profession, who had assumed that their pension scheme was as generous as most others (it is still preferable to a private scheme). But many other superannuation schemes pay the surviving partner 50 per cent of a dead spouse's pension. A teacher's widow, though, is only entitled to one third of his pension - and widowers do even worse. They may find they can claim only one tenth of their wives' pensions. Some older widows and widowers may get no pension at all.

This is because a widow's pension depends on the number of years her husband has worked as a teacher since 1972; for a widower, only the years of service since 1988 are taken into account.

One lesson must be to read the small print very carefully, and to take every opportunity to augment pension provision through voluntary contributions. But "let the buyer beware" is not the only issue here. Serious questions need to be raised. Why is the scheme so mean in the first place? Why - when teaching is a predominantly female profession - is it based on the traditional view that the main breadwinner is likely to be male, and that the surviving spouse is likely to be a woman?

In the past, many people went into teaching because they wanted to pass on their knowledge and understanding to young people, and because it was a stable and secure profession. It may not have been particularly well-paid, but a teacher was a respected member of the community and could retire with dignity. Today, teachers feel neither stable nor secure. Battered by constant change and criticism, they now find that their spouses, when they die, could end up on the breadline.

The Government is currently making every effort to attract new recruits into the profession. The reality of their pension entitlements throws a somewhat chilly light onto the old question of how much we truly value our teachers.

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