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Pensions tension hots up

The outcome of pensions negotiations for 1.5 million local government workers could not be more crucial for Liz Parker, a teaching assistant in Chelmsford, Essex.

She is 49 and her husband, a probation officer, is 51. Both are members of the local government pension scheme and want to retire at 60. Both face having to struggle on until 65 if the local government employers get their way.

To make things worse, Mrs Parker would be working in classrooms alongside teachers whom, earlier this month, were told they could retire at 60 without being penalised on pensions.

"I do not resent teachers getting a good deal," she said. "But so should all the staff. We all have to deal with stressful situations."

Mrs Parker said none of the 24 teaching assistants (TAs) at Hylands secondary school took part in the public sector workers' national one-day strike over pensions in March, mainly because of loyalty to the children.

But Jane Brook, 50, a special needs co-ordinator at the school, warned that morale would suffer if teaching assistants and other staff continue to be given less-favourable treatment.

She said: "When I went into teaching in 1978, I was told I could retire at 60. I would feel cheated if the goalposts were moved."

Mrs Brook wants TAs to get the same deal as teachers because their jobs have also changed. "Teaching assistants have to be experts in all sorts of areas," she said. "There are more demands on TAs, as well as teachers."

Christina McAnea, head of education at UNISON, said she was pleased by the teachers' victory on pensions but outraged that other school staff were being offered a worse deal.

"They keep asking our members to take on more responsibilities, yet expect us to take second-class benefits," she said.

A spokeswoman for UNISON added that the current offer on pensions meant those who retired at 60 could find themselves losing out by as much as 30 per cent.

Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "People are living longer. The current pensions scheme for local government staff means that early retirement is not economically viable."

The National Union of Teachers, meanwhile, is claiming a further success this week. From June, teachers will be able to take part in "salary sacrifice" schemes, such as tax-free childcare vouchers for part of their pay. Pensions would not be affected.

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