While teachers across the country can finally put their feet up for a well-earned break as the long autumn term comes to an end, their union leaders are enduring a frantic finale to the year. With the classroom and heads' unions struggling to reach a consensus over how to respond to the Government's latest pension offer, time is running out for an agreement to be reached.
Following a drawn-out impasse since the plans to overhaul teachers' pensions emerged last January, ministers finally improved their offer last month, although it was too little and too late to avert the 30 November national strike. And with the 31 December deadline set by the Treasury fast approaching, the unions run the risk of having the improved deal withdrawn and the original offer imposed without their consent.
Contrary to reports earlier this month - that ministers hoped to agree an early deal with teaching unions to increase the pressure on their counterparts in other sectors - a union source told TES that they now looked arguably the least likely to come to a resolution, due to friction between the different unions. The NASUWT and NUT are understood to be refusing to concede significant ground to ministers, while the more moderate ATL, NAHT and ASCL are believed to be more willing to compromise.
The unions were asked to submit a formal counter-proposal to the Department for Education on Wednesday, outlining which parts of the latest deal they would accept, and which terms would need to be improved. A make- or-break meeting between union leaders and DfE officials was scheduled to take place yesterday, leaving ministers with little time to respond before Parliament breaks for recess on Tuesday. With MPs not due to return to Westminster until 10 January, the Treasury would have to give its approval for the talks to resume in the new year.
Ahead of Thursday's meeting, Martin Freedman, head of pay, conditions and pensions at ATL, insisted the unions were showing a united front. "The unions are working very hard to try and get a joint response. If we do, the onus is on the Department to show they are willing to negotiate," he said.
Meanwhile, a DfE spokesman said that no further meetings with the unions had yet been scheduled. "We've been having regular, constructive and cordial meetings with union officials and general secretaries. We are meeting them again this week to make further progress and to discuss our next steps," he added. Indeed, a Treasury spokesman confirmed that it still expected unions to present "detailed proposals" to the DfE by the end of the year.
For some, it would seem, the build-up to Christmas is going to be remarkably light of gift-buying.
CURRENT PENSIONS DEAL
6.4% - Contribution
160 - Accrual rate (for new entrants)
60 - Retirement age (if joined before 2007)
65 - Retirement age (for new entrants)
9.5% - Contribution
165 - Accrual rate (for new entrants)
68 - Retirement age (gradually rising)
7.9% - Contribution
160 - Accrual rate
68 - Retirement age (gradually rising).
Original headline: Clock ticking for unions to put forward a wish-list