Susannah Kirkman examines fears about the teachers' pensions body after one lecturer's money was allocated to someone else.
Part-time lecturer Valerie Ann Williams got a nasty shock when she discovered that her pension had apparently been allocated to another person.
After rejoining the teachers' pension scheme in September she received a letter from Teachers' Pensions informing her that her contributions were being credited to a Mr V W Webb.
Mrs Williams contributed to the scheme for 17 years before leaving a full-time post at Easter. When she resumed work as a part-time lecturer in childcare at Newcastle under Lyme College in Staffordshire in September, she notified the pensions agency that she wanted to re-start her contributions, but five weeks later she learned about the mix-up.
"Although the envelope containing the agency's letter was addressed to me the docu-ment inside was useless as proof of my pensions contributions because it did not have my name on it," she says.
"When I rang Teachers' Pensions to notify them about the mistake, my serious concerns were met with airy-fairy dismissiveness by staff at the call centre. My pension is obviously very important to me and I was concerned that my husband would receive no death-in-service benefit if I had died the next day. " After repeated phone calls achieved nothing, Mrs Williams's problem was finally resolved when she sent a letter of complaint to the chief executive of Teachers' Pensions. Three months after she had filled in her original application, she received an apology acknowledging that there had been an "administrative error".
However, when she finally received a statement of service from Teachers' Pensions, she realised that one year's teaching in Scotland had not been credited. "It's very easy to sit back complacently and assume that everything's OK but you must keep track of your contributions," she says.
Unfortunately, Mrs Williams's complaint is not the only one, according to teaching unions. "Service from Teachers' Pensions has gone downhill sharply over the past six months," says Mike Beard, head of pensions at the National Association of Head Teachers.
There have been many other complaints that the pensions call centre has not been helpful or that wrong information has been provided. "The Department for Education and Employment guidelines on premature retirement make it quite clear that subsequent re-employment could lead to a review of a teacher's pension, yet TP staff have been telling people that it is all right to be re-employed, " says one union spokesman.
Since privatisation, enquirers can no longer be put through to the staff dealing with their cases; the DFEE defends the change on the grounds that officials will be able to work more efficiently if they are not continually interrupted by outside calls. TP is concerned about dissatisfaction with the call centre but insists that a more efficient service is being provided overall since privatisation.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers doesn't believe that standards have been lowered, but pensions officers admit that the extra layer of bureaucracy created by privatisation is frustrating.
The unions are also concerned at delays in the processing of applications for ill-health retirement. "Many of the applicants are suffering from stress-related illness yet the prevarication is only making their condition worse," says Mike Beard.
Most teachers used to hear within six weeks whether their application for ill-health retirement had been successful; now some are waiting for up to a year.
The main reason for delay is the new criteria for ill-health retirement, says the DFEE. Teachers must now prove they are "permanently unable to teach", which usually means several medicals.
Elaine Goswell-Cross, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, believes there is a lot of confusion about ill-health retirement procedures. "Teachers who've had to appeal don't understand how to, or even what forms the basis of an appeal," she says.
The DFEE says teachers should only apply for ill-health retirement as a last resort. "We had an application from someone who has not taken sick leave and is not receiving treatment," says a spokesman. "People who are feeling the stress of being a headteacher or head of department can step down to a position of less responsibility without jeopardising their pension."
Teachers' Pensions, Mowden Hall, Staindrop Road, Darlington DR3 9EE. Tel: 01325 392929
Save all paperwork
Keeping track of your pension * Keep all your payslips. This is the only way to prove that you have made pension contributions * Part-time and supply teachers should keep a record of when and where they have worked * Teachers taking maternity leave should make sure that the date of their return to work is documented * Every year you should ask Teachers' Pensions for a statement of service and check whether all your contributions have been included * Photocopy application forms before you send them.