Teachers plan further strikes over pensions

Staff plan fresh walk outs as a Devon boarding school consults on TPS withdrawal

Catherine Lough

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Teachers at a private boarding school in Devon is planning further industrial action over the school’s possible withdrawal from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS).

Staff at Mount Kelly School in Tavistock, a co-educational boarding school for boys and girls aged 3 to 18, went on strike for six days from April 21 and are planning further industrial action on May 18 and 19.

The school is consulting with staff over a proposed withdrawal from the TPS.

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In January, David Woodgate, chief executive of the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association, told Tes that 201 schools had officially given notice to leave the scheme, while 150 more were in consultation about leaving.

The issue stems from the need for a 43 per cent increase in employer contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, with the government covering the increased cost for state schools but not for their private school counterparts.

But Nigel Williams, executive member of the NASUWT teaching union in the South West, said staff at the school did not believe Mount Kelly needed to withdraw from the TPS in order to cut costs.

He said that while the school had said the consultation on withdrawal closed today, it had also asked staff to sign new contracts on 15 April.

“Most staff signed that reluctantly and we’ve issued a letter saying they’ve done so under duress,” he said.

“I met staff last night and they stress that they’re trying to be courteous, and they’re anxious about the situation and do feel stressed.

“They want to resolve things and get back to normal but obviously they don’t want to lose pension rights they have, quite rightly, accrued under the contract when they were appointed to their jobs,” he added.

Mr Williams said possible future threats to the charitable status of independent schools had been used in presentations to staff as a reason for TPS withdrawal.

In a letter to parents and pupils, Mount Kelly teaching staff stressed their love for the profession, while emphasising that the lack of “rock star wages” in teaching made the TPS more important.

“We love what we do. Few jobs are as emotionally rewarding, and few people are lucky enough to work with pupils as fantastic as you, or somewhere as stunning as Mount Kelly. We know this. But, equally, we hope that you feel you are quite lucky to have us, too. We want the best for you and we do our best to ensure you get it, whether it is in the classroom or away from it,” the letter says.

“Teachers do not get paid rock-star wages; everyone knows that. But there is a misconceived idea that teachers are not in it for the income but for the outcome. Yes, we love our jobs and, yes, we love the satisfaction we get from being part of your success, but let’s be realistic.

“None of us can afford to have such an idealistic outlook as we all have families to feed, dependents who rely on us and a need to be able support ourselves once we retire. The TPS is, without question, one of the best pension schemes in existence and is designed to balance the lower wages we receive during our working life compared to other well-qualified professionals."

The letter goes on to state that staff would not query withdrawal from the TPS if they felt this were financially necessary, but “the Mount Kelly Foundation makes a healthy surplus each year, pupil numbers are up year on year and we survived the pandemic in really good shape. Should this situation change in the future, then we would willingly re-enter into negotiations”.

And they said they had chosen dates for strike action that would have the least impact, particularly for students in Years 11 and 13 taking tests as a basis for teacher-assessed grades.

Why are independent school teachers striking over pensions?

Catherine Lough, Tes reporter

A growing number of independent schools have either chosen to leave the TPS or are in consultation to do so after the government raised the rate of employers’ contributions by 43 per cent.

While state schools are covered by the government for this increase, for now, private schools are not, meaning that some schools either have withdrawn or are considering a withdrawal from the TPS to cut costs. Yet, as the letter from Mount Kelly staff to pupils and parents makes clear, teachers may have been partly attracted to the profession by its solid pension scheme, and while they love their jobs, they cannot be sustained on “idealism” alone.

However, with the possibility of a recession caused by the pandemic, independent schools may not be feeling flush.

David Woodgate, chief executive of the Independent School Bursars’ Association (ISBA) told Tes recently that there was a lot of “root and branch” work on cutting private schools’ cost bases, for example reviewing curricula to cut “minority” subjects. Schools are also looking to boost revenues in other ways, such as monetising their online learning provision for sale overseas.

He said consideration of withdrawal from the TPS, given the financial pressures facing some schools “is very much in the spotlight - 232 schools have now withdrawn and I’m aware of well over 100, probably 150, where they are in some stage of consultation”.

Mr Woodgate said that “level of contribution [from employers] looks less affordable than it did 12 months’ ago”, adding that in 2024, when the next revaluation takes effect, a 30 per cent employer contribution is “plausible”, according to actuaries working with the sector.

“So another quite large increase in contributions which could well be unaffordable for schools that are coping with the current 23.6 per cent.”

For some schools, withdrawal from the TPS may therefore look like a means of balancing the books. But, if independent schools end up losing long-standing staff over the decision, this could prove to be a painful outcome for all involved.

Mount Kelly’s headteacher, Guy Ayling, said: “We regret that a number of teaching staff at Mount Kelly decided to take strike action on 21 April 2021. 

“The issue concerns a 43 per cent increase in Employer Contribution to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (from 16.48 per cent to 23.68 per cent of gross salary), which was introduced by the government from September 2019. 

“The school’s governors have sought to absorb the cost of this increase for the past two years but reluctantly, given the material nature of this increase, the future uncertainty in relation to possible further increases and other external pressures facing the sector, the governors decided to consult with staff over a proposed change to the school’s pension provision. 

“A full and meaningful consultation process is being followed and proper consideration has been given to all suggestions and proposals put forward. 

“If implemented, we appreciate the impact that the proposals will have on teaching staff who have demonstrated exceptional professionalism, loyalty and commitment throughout the last very difficult year in order to maintain the high standards of educational provision in which everyone at Mount Kelly takes such pride.

“That said, we also recognise that we need to protect the long-term sustainability and future of the School. 

“We regret disruption the industrial action may have caused, and we were pleased to have delivered a provision as close to ‘normal’ as possible.”

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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