A wave of departures from further education colleges peaked in 1993 when one-in-20 lecturers left early - three times the proportion of teachers quitting the profession through early retirement - figures from the Local Government Management Board show.
What the figures reveal most starkly is the way premature retirement was used, with the blessing of ministers, to press ahead with the FE revolution, incorporation of colleges and 25 per cent "efficiency" cuts, with minimum effective resistance from the unions.
Efforts by the Association of Colleges to extract accurate comparative data from the Department for Education and Employment have repeatedly drawn a blank as civil servants insist that no such figures are available.
The LGMB research will add to the wrath of college managers, now being blamed by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, for over-zealous use of the incentive scheme.
The figures for six years from 1989 to 1995 show that departures through early retirement from FE colleges peaked at 5.1 per cent of the full-time workforce in 1993, when colleges left local education authority control. After dropping in 1994 to 3.26 per cent, it rose again the following year to 3.33 per cent.
Departures from adult education institutions peaked (at 4.47 per cent) a year later than in FE colleges. Sixth-form colleges have had the lowest rate of departure, at around half the FE college levels.
Departures from primary and secondary schools have remained steadier at around 1.5 to 2 per cent a year.
John Brennan, policy director for the AOC, said he expected figures for 1996 "to be even more horrendous" as colleges had been told to press ahead with three more years of efficiency measures.
He challenged Mrs Shephard's interpretation that the system was being abused. The majority leaving colleges were at the top end of the age range.
"If you are in your fifties, the prospects of full-time employment elsewhere are pretty minimal. If you are 58 and take the alternative 66 weeks compensation package, it may take you to your pension at 60, but not if you are only 53 or so."
The sector had faced a number of significant changes in 1993. "There was a shake-out of the FE system, which the Government wanted. Many colleges took advantage of opportunities to shed as many staff as they could without adding to the burden of costs."
The effects of the efficiency squeeze and changes in the nature of the courses were felt more sharply. Colleges used premature retirement as a means of achieving this, Mr Brennan said.
More than 2,500 full-time lecturers were laid off over three years as a direct result of government reforms. Without the option of early retirement, say colleges, industrial action against the alternative of compulsory redundancy would have brought the reforms to a virtual halt.
"It is evident that in the past couple of years the majority of early retirements have been redundancies," Mr Brennan said. "In the school sector this has been less of an issue."
If figures were averaged out over a decade, he suggested, the apparent differences in the early retirement rates between schools and colleges would be far less clearly defined.