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Support staff delay pensions strike

Strikes due to hit thousands of schools next week have been averted after support staff unions agreed to suspend industrial action over pension changes and return to the negotiating table.

Teaching assistants, dinner staff and caretakers were due to walk out in a rolling programme of regional action on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

But unions representing 1.5 million workers in the local government pension scheme say employers have given ground in three key areas, enabling talks to restart.

They have been campaigning against a plan to abolish "rule 85", allowing employees to retire on a full pension before the official age of 65 provided their combined age and length of service added up to 85 or more.

With a total of 25 years in the scheme, Kim Carter, a 49-year-old administrator at St Clement Dane's primary, Covent Garden, London, stands to lose.

She is pleased that negotiations have restarted and hopeful they will allow her to retire at 60 in line with existing teachers.

"I am sure that the employers will back down because I don't see how they can justify giving this to one set of public-sector workers and not the other," she said.

John Richards, the senior education officer for Unison, the biggest support staff union, said employers had now recognised that full protection against the change for existing staff was an issue.

They were also saying that 50 per cent of savings from the change would be used to benefit pensioners, rather than their previous proposal of up to 50 per cent.

Finally, they had agreed to talk about exactly how much these savings would be worth.

Mike Walker, director of Local Government Employers, denied anything had ever been ruled out, but said there was relief that the action had been averted.

He said the scheme needed to pay for a near 30 per cent increase in life expectancy at 65 since the 1970s.

Last month, a one-day national strike closed up to 17,000 schools. Further strikes to coincide with next month's local elections have also been called off.

Mr Richards said: "The strike action has only been suspended and could begin again if we fail to reach a resolution during the spring or summer."

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