Support staff question double standards in pensions in schools, reports Nick Hilborne.
The outcome of negotiations on the pensions of 1.5 million local government workers could not be more crucial for Liz Parker, a teaching assistant in Chelmsford, Essex.
She is 49 and her husband, a probation officer, 51. Both are members of the local government pension scheme and both want to retire at 60. But they face having to struggle on until 65 if local government employers get their way.
To make things worse, Mrs Parker works in classrooms with teachers who were told earlier this month that they could retire at 60 without damaging their pensions.
"I do not resent teachers getting a good deal on pensions, because they need it," she said. "But the deal should be the same for all staff in schools. We all have to deal with stressful situations."
Mrs Parker said none of the 24 teaching assistants at Hylands secondary school, where she has worked for five years, joined the one-day strike over pensions in March, mainly out of loyalty to the children.
But Jane Brook, a special needs co-ordinator at the school, warned that morale would suffer if teaching assistants and other school staff continued to be given less favourable treatment.
The 50-year-old teacher plans to retire in 10 years' time. "When I went into the teaching profession, in 1978, I was told that I could retire at 60. I would have felt cheated if the goalposts had been moved."
Mrs Brook wants teaching assistants to get the same deal as teachers because their job has become more pressurised.
As head of a special needs department managing 24 full and part-time TAs and responsible for 34 children with statements, she is in an excellent position to know the demands on support staff. "They have to be experts in all sorts of areas," she said. "There are more demands on teaching assistants, as well as teachers."
Christina McAnea, head of education at the local government union Unison, said that she had been pleased by the teachers' victory on pensions, but was angry that other school staff were being offered a worse deal. "They keep asking our members to take on more responsibilities, yet expect us to take second-class benefits," she said. "This cannot continue."
A spokeswoman for Unison said that the current offer on pensions meant those who retired at 60 could lose as much as 30 per cent of their pensions.
But Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "People are living longer. The current pensions' scheme for local government staff means that early retirement on full pension is not an economically viable solution.
"The council taxpayer simply cannot afford to pay more."
* The National Union of Teachers is claiming a further success on pensions this week.
From June 1, teachers will be able to take part in "salary sacrifice"
schemes offered by employers, for example offering childcare vouchers on a tax-free basis in return for part of their pay.
An NUT spokeswoman said the Government had confirmed that joining such schemes will not affect teachers' pensions.
HOW PENSIONS WORK FOR TEACHERS
Existing teachers and those who join the Teachers' Pension Scheme by the end of 2006 will be able to retire at 60 without being penalised.
HOW THEY DON'T WORK FOR SUPPORT STAFF
Unison, the local government union, is demanding that support staff should also be able to retire at 60 without being penalised.
This would mean preserving the "rule of 85", allowing workers with a combined age and length of service of 85 years to retire at 60 or younger on a full pension. The union has accepted that the rule should not apply to members who join the scheme from January 2007. Local government employers want the rule phased out for existing staff. The Government has suggested the cut-off date should be 2013.
Jane Brook (above), 50, is special needs co-ordinator at Hylands school in Essex. She earns pound;42,000 a year and contributes 6 per cent of her pay to the teachers' pension scheme, which will rise to 6.4 per cent from next year.
She is relieved that she will be able to retire at 60 without losing a large chunk of her pension.
"By the time I retire I will have done 38 years. It's an awfully long time, and at times it has been very difficult. More teachers should be offered sabbaticals, and the chance to work part-time."
THE TEACHING ASSISTANT
Liz Parker, 49, is a part-time teaching assistant at Hylands. She works 17.5 hours a week, and earns pound;5,500 a year. She contributes the standard rate of 6 per cent into the local government pension scheme.
She is particularly worried about her husband's pension. He is a probation officer in the same scheme.
She said that it was important that he could retire at 60 without being penalised, as he was suffering from a stress-related illness. "It would be lovely if he could retire before he cracks up," she said. "Retiring at 60 would prolong his life."
THE DINNER LADY
Lisa Johnson is a 38-year-old catering assistant. She works for 20 hours a week, and earns around pound;4,800 a year. She contributes the standard 6 per cent into the local government pension scheme.
She would like to retire at 60, but said she did not think much about her pension. "Apparently it was good, but whether it still is I don't know."
She said working in the canteen at Hylands had fitted in well with being a mother, and gave her the chance to admire her son Josh in Year 10, and daughter Gemma in Year 11.
"We all have a good laugh. It's an enjoyable place to work," she said.