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Shephard denies pensions climbdown

The Government has been forced to modify its clampdown on teachers' early retirement, following a challenge in the High Court by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, writes Clare Dean.

The Department for Education and Employment withdrew a controversial form for employers to fill in giving details of all early retirements granted after October 22. It claimed explicit advice sent to employers in mid-December had not imposed new conditions on the right to premature retirement benefits, as had been widely believed by unions and local authorities.

The Department accepted the form had caused employers "some difficulty" and said: "Decisions about whether premature retirement should be awarded are made by employers according to their particular circumstances." It claimed the advice issued last year, which prompted the High Court action by the 160,000-strong ATL, had been "misunderstood".

The High Court had given the union, represented by Cherie Booth QC, permission for an urgent hearing of its case that Gillian Shephard had overstepped the mark. The union withdrew its action after the Government clarified the rules on early retirement.

Peter Smith, general secretary, said: "We are not in the habit of going to the courts as some sort of PR stunt and I very much welcome the re-thinking from the department on this."

Mrs Shephard denied there had been a climbdown: "I want to make it absolutely clear that we do not plan to stop early retirement - there will continue to be opportunities for teachers to take early retirement where valid reasons exist."

The Government is still aiming to halve the number of early retirements by making schools, colleges and local authorities responsible for pension costs after March 31.

The DFEE said this week that it expected employers to consider whether a teacher's employment really was being terminated by redundancy or in the interests of the efficient discharge of the employer's functions, and then to make a responsible decision in the light of their own circumstances. A new form issued to employers will be used for monitoring only and includes a new section for them to give reasons for allowing early retirement.

The ATL remains opposed to the proposals which would shift the extra cost of early retirement to local government and have led to a rush of teachers seeking to beat the March 31 deadline.

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