Destined to end in tiers? Pension deal could deter talent from rising to the top

16th September 2011 at 01:00
Would-be heads facing hefty contributions may choose to stay put

While teachers may be quick to complain of their headteacher's latest diktat, it is often the prospect of promotion to a senior leadership role of their own that keeps them in line. But the welcome perks of a new office and the inevitable pay rise could soon be partially offset by a substantial disincentive to climb the career ladder: higher pension contributions.

A groundswell of outrage at a range of unpopular changes to teachers' pensions erupted on 30 June when members of the ATL and NUT unions took to the picket line for an unprecedented joint national strike. With an increase of up to 50 per cent in monthly pension contributions for the average teacher, not to mention the retirement age being pushed back, union leaders were at pains to point out that teachers would end up paying more for less.

But in the meetings taking place behind closed doors between Department for Education and union representatives, a new approach is emerging. A tiered system is being thrashed out in which lower-paid teachers would contribute a smaller proportion of their earnings than senior staff. In the first stage of the proposed increases, due to be implemented in 201213, extra contributions would vary from 0.6 per cent (for teachers earning between #163;15,000 and #163;26,000) and up to 2.4 per cent for heads paid more than #163;112,000. If a principal has a much higher income than an NQT, the theory goes, they can afford to contribute more to the pensions pot. The overall increase, TES understands, could hit 5 per cent for the best-paid principals.

While the ATL is keen to ensure that the lowest-paid teachers will not be worst hit, deputy general secretary Martin Johnson fears the tiered approach could scare ambitious teachers off applying for promotion. "It's quite possible we are going to have people deterred from entering school leadership, feeling the extra responsibilities would not be worth it because of the cost of the increased payments into the pensions scheme," he said. "Our leader members are saying they would think twice about taking on a headship. The Government has made absolutely no attempt to research the likely impact on teachers' behaviour."

Headteachers, unsurprisingly, are not impressed. The "quite disproportionate" increases being considered would see top-earning heads paying more than double the percentage increase faced by the most junior teachers, NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby pointed out, while the very lowest paid could see no increase at all. "Everything seems to hit the more senior ranks harder," he said.

Brian Lightman, his ASCL counterpart, agreed. "While there are many great things about being a head, there is an enormous amount of pressure. We need an influx of new leaders to replace the huge number who are approaching retirement."

To quell a revolt among the rank and file, the Government seems willing to disappoint tomorrow's school leaders. A generation of talented teachers could end up treading water to avoid being financially penalised for their ambition. Did anyone mention the law of unintended consequences?

Strikes on the cards

This week saw the education unions up the ante in their battle on teachers' and public sector pensions. After the NASUWT announced plans to ballot its members on strike action last Friday, this week's TUC congress saw Unison and Unite - which represent thousands of school-support staff - announce their own ballots. Co-ordinated action with other public sector unions in late November now looks likely.

The NUT and ATL, which took part in the 30 June strike, look set to be on board.

Of the heads' unions, the NAHT's ballot takes place later this month, while ASCL is waiting until negotiations have been exhausted before showing its hand.

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