Pension rule battle goes to court

Frances Rafferty reports on legal moves to help teachers who want to retire early.

Resistance to the Government's planned changes to teachers' pensions intensified this week, with one union taking action against the Secretary of State in the High Court and another threatening to end co-operation over teacher training.

The unions are also considering action against local authorities who have reneged on retirement deals.

The National Association of Head Teachers has said it will advise its members not to take part in initial teacher training (ITT) after September 1 (or whenever any ITT contracts end). This will affect arrangements with colleges and universities and the School-Centred Initial Teacher Training scheme. As these arrangements are voluntary, the union says a ballot is not necessary. As trainee teachers now spend up to 60 per cent of their time in classrooms, the action would effectively scupper ITT.

David Hart, the union's general secretary, said this choice of action was because the Government has used the changes in the teachers' superannuation scheme to slash ITT targets.

The Government is aiming to halve the number of early retirements by making schools, colleges and local authorities responsible for the pension costs. Thousands of teachers and lecturers are now trying to beat the March 31 deadline.

A letter from the Department for Education and Employment to Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, dated the same day as the Budget, gave new teacher intake targets, lower than the previous year's, though Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, told last week's North of England conference that teacher numbers were a matter for the TTA.

The Government is aware of an impending crisis on the recruitment of shortage subjects like maths and sciences, where there is a disproportionately aged teacher population.

The unions are furious because they view the DFEE's consultation, which ends next Friday, as a sham.

Mr Hart said it was obvious the Government intends to ram the pension changes through Parliament. He said: "It is possible that a quarter of the 72,000 teachers at present able to qualify for early retirement at 50 will attempt to do so."

Last year, 13,000 quit early.

Teachers are particularly angered by the speed of the changes. Most people accept the present situation cannot go on forever, and teachers can expect little sympathy from other public sector workers who have not been able to rely on retiring at 50.

Kerry George, NAHT senior assistant secretary, said: "Many teachers have mapped their careers knowing they can leave in their 50s. We will now have an ageing, sick profession. It will also be more difficult for teachers suffering from stress to take ill-health retirement. I can see it becoming the case that governing bodies will be sacking teachers who have given a long and committed service."

The situation has been further complicated by new criteria sent out by the DFEE. These prevent schools from allowing a teacher who has retired on March 31 from returning to finish the term and says a member of staff cannot retire if his or her class "is left untaught or subject to supply teaching or amalgamation with another class".

These criteria have been added to the certification form, to be signed by the employer, for early retirement. The local authorities have been advised to pass these forms onto schools to sign as only the governors can answer whether the retirement is in the "efficient discharge of their function".

A clause has been added to the Education Bill which will allow LEAs to veto retirement decisions by governing bodies.

Some teachers who had been promised retirement, and even had their leaving parties, are now being told the certification paper cannot be signed. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers is taking counsel's opinion on Manchester council for withdrawing early retirement for two teachers at Wright Robinson school. Both have been told to return to work after accepting leaving presents from pupils and staff.

The cost to an employer for a teacher who retires at 50 (over a 25-year period) will be at least Pounds 82,000, and Pounds 49,000 for someone who retires at 55. Local authorities are unlikely to pay this.

The grant-maintained sector should fare better. In response to the proposals, the Funding Agency for Schools has said it will be able to pay for early retirement, but only for teachers aged 53 and over.

Pauline Latham, chairman of the Standing Advisory Committee for Grant-Maintained Schools, said: "Some authorities have gone over the top and used too much money. Those who are left will suffer." She said she feared morale in the profession would suffer if those in their 50s stayed and prevent promotion for younger teachers.

Next week Cherie Booth QC, wife of Labour leader Tony Blair, will represent the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in the High Court. She will claim that it is unlawful for the Secretary of State to stipulate the new criteria for early retirement, and local authorities' organisations plan to make similar protests to Mrs Shephard.

NATFHE, the lecturers' union, has written to teacher unions seeking support for protest strikes. It is also hoping to hold a demonstration in February. John Akker, general secretary, said: "It's caused mayhem. There are over 50 principals who have had to shift their leaving date back to March 31."

Cheryl Gillan, education minister, said: "The Government is proposing to reduce the cost of employers' contributions to the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme from 8.8 per cent to 7.2 per cent. Any disruption of teacher training would be hugely irresponsible. We do not expect premature retirement to end, and expect a 25 per cent reduction next year - not a cessation.

"However, only one in five teachers remains until the age of 60 and we simply do not believe that the remaining four out of five are incapable of teaching effectively until they reach 60."

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