TEACHERS and further education lecturers will be able to retire at 55 - but the price will be a smaller pension.
Unions fear worn-out teachers could be forced to choose between leaving at 55 with reduced benefits or battling on to 60.
The proposals would also reduce the flexibility of school managers to help long-serving staff leave "with honour," they say.
But employers say staff can already step down from responsible posts while maintaining their pension rights.
The new package and increases in employers' contributions add up to the equivalent of a 1 per cent pay rise for teachers - a cost employers will have to bear, they add.
Schools minister Charles Clarke this week announced consultations on plans to introduce "actuarially-reduced" pensions for teachers aged 55 and over. Currently, there is no entitlement for staff to retire and draw pension before 60.
Premature retirements will still be allowed though they are only granted in cases of redundancy or in the interests education authority efficiency. Such teachers are entitled to the pension they have so far accrued. Since 1997, education authorities have had to pick up the additional costs associated with premature retirement.
Early retirement on the grounds of ill health will not be affected by the changes except in the case of teachers with less than five years' service. Their benefits will be improved.
The Department for Education and Employment says the changes "offer teachers a scheme in line with the best occupational provision in the public service".
But Sue Johnson, head of pensions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says staff could be encouraged to retire into poverty.
"The association fears the changes will result in teachers and lecturers suffering hardship in their old age," she said.
She calculates that, under the proposed scheme, a teacher with 25 years' service on pound;26,000 would lose more than pound;2,000 a year if they retired at 55. The lump sum payable on retirement would also be cut, in this example by around pound;3,680.
Barry Fawcett, head of pensions at the National Union of Teachers, said: "There needs to be adequate and affordable early-
retirement benefits for teachers. What the Government has proposed is not satisfactory."
He said employers had wanted reduced pensions to be available from age 50. This would, he said, have created a real danger of people being forced out by "unscrupulous" employers on to pensions cut by 40 per cent.
But Mike Walker, assistant director of the Employers' Organisation, said the changes offered more flexibility both for teachers and employers.
"We are getting more and more cases where teachers want to go, for all sorts of reasons, but authorities can't support them for financial reasons," he said.
"At the moment, we are having to say we can't afford for someone to leave at 55 or 56 to care for an elderly relative - which means they don't get any pension until they are 60. Under this arrangement, they get a pension, but not the top-up."
More than 19,000 teachers took early retirement in 199798, in a rush to beat the Government's clamp;down on early retirement. Last year, just 2,917 left before 60.