The Government is to postpone until after the election plans to clamp down on early retirement deals in an attempt to prevent a teachers' stampede from the classroom before the original April deadline.
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, insisted this week that the decision to delay until September the requirement for local authorities to fund the extra cost of premature retirements could be achieved without additional cost to the Exchequer.
The teacher unions estimate that between 11,250 and 17,500 teachers are applying to leave by the end of March, but the Government is hoping that many will now wait till September. Mrs Shephard said the changes would be "cost-neutral" as the number of early retirements would be more evenly spread.
Ministers deny they have been forced to retreat, despite the fact that only last month the Prime Minister ruled out any postponement in a letter to a constituent. Mrs Shephard, he wrote, was bound to abide by the advice from the Government actuary to implement the proposals on April 1.
However, Mrs Shephard insisted that measures would be taken to prevent what she described as abuse of the system. It was not credible, she said, that four out of five teachers should leave before retirement age. Neither was it acceptable that teachers who retired on grounds of ill-health should reappear in the classroom, she said. She confirmed that from April retirement on health grounds will only be available to teachers permanently unfit to work.
The intention is to halve the number of early retirements by making schools, colleges and local authorities responsible in part for pension costs amid concerns at the spiralling cost to central Government - Pounds 480 million last year.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, warned that the fundamental problems had yet to be resolved. "The Government should examine the reasons why so many teachers simply want to escape at the earliest opportunity," he said.
* The Appeal Court last week gave unions leave to take a judgment affecting part-time workers' rights to the House of Lords. A European Court ruling two years ago said that part-timers were entitled to the same pension rights as full-time staff. Thousands have since asked their employers to make up pension contributions over their years of service but last week judges ruled that part-timers could only apply for two years' back contributions.