Don't let them retire too early

10th January 1997 at 00:00
For too long teachers have been allowed to dictate the terms of retirement - leaving their superannuation scheme in chaos, says Pat Curbishley. They need to be told a home truth: go early and your pension will be frozen until you're 60

Discussion of the proposed changes to the early-retirement arrangements has focused on the implications for the "life plans" of serving teachers. But the proposed changes should also be viewed in the wider context of curriculum planning and value-for-money management of the public purse.

There is currently no automatic entitlement to early retirement. Teachers can retire early on only three grounds: * to reduce the staffing of a school (redundancy); * protracted illness; * as a result of a structural review of staffing that replaces certain employees with others who can more effectively deliver the curriculum needs of the school.

Apart from ill-health, where compensation is awarded according to a set formula, early retirement on any other grounds should be discretionary. So only the ill-health option gives the employee any "rights". In all other situations the employer calls the tune.

Redundancy is clearly the employer's responsibility, and typically results from a fall in the numbers on the roll. Redundancies will follow consultation with the relevant departments. Early release of a pension will be restricted to those who have reached their 50th birthday, and the numbers may be made up by volunteers. But this doesn't mean that employees can direct the redundancy process, merely that they can offer constructive solutions. The employer still makes the final decision.

Premature retirement on health grounds is perhaps the easiest to justify, yet even here employers are less pro-active than they could be. A contract of employment states minimum standards of performance. If the employer feels that the sustained ill-health of an employee frustrates the achievment of that minimum performance, it should be the employer who initiates a medical review.

The document setting out the new proposals suggests more stringent checks on stress-related retirements before pensions are granted on health grounds. If employers paid more attention to individual performance indicators and monitored the working environment more closely, much depressive illness could be identified earlier. Ill-health retirement is a drain on resources that has to be closely monitored.

It is, however, retirement on the "grounds of efficiency" that lies at the heart of the current problem. We regularly read of the teacher who has "planned to retire at 55", or "always intended to leave before reaching 60". In truth, none of these situations should be regarded as anything other than straightforward resignations.

Employers, be they the LEA, the governors of a grant-maintained school, or any other employer associated with the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme, all too easily fall into the trap of responding to requests to retire. They should do so only when it is in their own best interests.

Perhaps it is because identifying employees who do not meet future needs is managerially uncomfortable that volunteers are invited. The process can be painful to the management team and overall morale, but any approach other than the deliberate selection of the most expendable staff should not attract the support of the pensions agency. If employees want to leave they should understand that their pensions will remain frozen until their 60th birthday or be transferred to another scheme.

Such home truths about why the pension scheme is in such an apparent mess need to be confronted. For too long the employer has allowed the employee to dictate the terms of retirement. Genuine ill-health and retirement aside, the careless attitude to premature-retirement compensation enhancements can only lead to a huge net outflow of funds.

Unlike the local government superannuation scheme, which is managed locally, there has been no accounting responsibility on the organisations that have allowed teachers to retire early.

Teachers must realise that in today's employment climate they come as near as possible to a "job for life", a concept that has passed into history for most people. If they want to retire early they should recognise the consequences. Employers have raised false expectations, but most teachers understand the rules and can only regret that they personally "missed the boat".

Pat Curbishley is an independent personnel consultant specialising in advice to the grant-maintained sector

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