And they said things would get better. But now teachers in their twenties and thirties learn that they could stand to lose most in new pension benefits being proposed should they decide to retire at 60. According to the latest government thinking, new teachers who join the profession from September 2006 would have to work until they are almost 63 to achieve the benefits available now at 60.
The Department for Education and Skills says it plans to improve its pensions package by changing the way contributions are calculated. At present, teachers receive 180th of their average salary for each year of service, plus a tax free lump sum of 380ths.
According to the new rules, pensions would be based on 160th of average salary and people would have the option to take up to 25 per cent of the money as a tax-free lump sum. But this more generous provision comes with a caveat: younger teachers would have to work longer to qualify.
The Association for Teachers and Lecturers calculates that a 35 year-old would have to work until 62 or 63 to get a pension equivalent to today's.
The association believes that the Government was forced to improve its offer after last year's outcry when it it planned to raise the pension age from 60 to 65 . The new rules will apply to serving teachers from 2013, as well as to those who join the scheme after September 2006. The Government insists that changes are inevitable because of the extra costs caused by people living longer.
The DfES has now announced an informal consultation starting later this month. Teachers will be invited to give their views on the internet or by email, although the contact details have not yet been released. Staff will be asked to consider what aspects of the scheme they value most highly, what improvements they would like to see, and to what extent they might be willing to pay higher contributions in return for better benefits.
Other improvements suggested by the DfES include benefits for unmarried partners, an improved death-in-service grant, and more flexible retirement arrangements, allowing teachers to take some of their pension while continuing to work part-time.
While the unions are pleased that years of campaigning are bearing fruit, they are still adamantly opposed to raising the pension age. "Although some of the proposed improvements are welcome, they do not compensate for an increase in the retirement age," said Sue Johnson, head of pensions at the ATL.
"The new benefits will also only apply to teachers joining after 2006, and to existing staff from 2013. Teachers may find it difficult to understand why the family of a young teacher killed in a car crash may be eligible for a death-in- service grant of three times the average salary, while an older teacher who dies of cancer after working for 30 years gets only twice the average salary."
All the unions are unhappy about plans covering premature retirement and redundancy. The DfES is proposing that employers should be able to choose not to make up these pensions in full. While this would help staff in cash-strapped areas which do not allow premature retirement because they cannot afford to foot the bill, it could be a raw deal for teachers in their fifties facing redundancy who are unlikely to find another job.
Another bone of contention is the idea that pensions might no longer be based on the highest earning year during the final three years of a teacher's career. Although this could help those who work part-time before they retire and therefore earn less, it could be disadvantageous for someone with a more conventional career pattern who is at their peak salary level shortly before retirement.
The unions also dislike the proposed toughening of the rules on ill-health retirement. Here, the Government is arguing that teachers who are unable to work outside teaching should receive higher pensions than those who are considered fit to do alternative work. It is estimated that two-thirds of those who retire because of ill-health would be able to work outside teaching so they would receive less than they do at the moment.
Above all, the unions are sceptical that teachers will want to trade retirement at 60 for improved pension benefits, even though these are long overdue. They are urging their members to keep up the pressure on the Government by writing to their MPs.
Full details of the proposals can be found on:
WHAT'S IN IT FOR YOU
* Will teachers still be allowed to retire at 60 after 2013?
Yes, but their pensions will be actuarially reduced; teachers in their twenties and thirties stand to lose the most.
* How long will I have to work to qualify for the pension I was expecting under today's rules? You can calculate this exactly by using the DfES ready-reckoner at: www.teachernet.gov.ukeducationoverviewbriefingcurrentstrategypensions
* I want to teach part-time once I reach my late fifties. How might the new proposals help me?
The DfES suggests that staff should be able to take some or all of their pension while they continue to work part-time instead of having to wait until they retire.
* I live with my partner. Will he be eligible for any of my pension benefits when I die?
Unmarried partners, including those of the same sex, will receive a dependant's pension. This also applies to spouses and dependent children.
* I want to spend more than 9 per cent of my salary on additional pension contributions. Will the new rules allow extra tax relief?
Probably. The Government says there should be more flexibility and that employees should be able to pay up to pound;215,000 into a pension scheme and receive tax relief, providing they do not exceed their annual salary.
However, some people have suggested that there could be limits for public employees.