From the Editor - Say your piece, shout even, but settle soon

2nd December 2011 at 00:00

How could you? Wednesday's one-day strike inconvenienced everyone, outraged tabloid opinion and, infamy of infamies, threatened to halt nativity plays. The TES newsroom, along with workplaces up and down the country, acquired a creche to accommodate teacher-less children. Shocked reporters were not allowed to curse. The verbal constipation was beyond inhuman.

Whatever the press says, unions cannot be blamed for trying to secure the best deal for their members. If they hadn't upped the ante earlier in the year, would ministers have conceded what they did later? Nor can the brothers be expected to pay too much heed to the "country can't afford it" chorus. They're not paid to make those choices for the country; the Government is. Their job is to divert the axe elsewhere and make hacking teachers' pensions a difficult choice for the Government to take.

In that fight, unions have been helped by the Government's hapless PR campaign. Ministers' figures were all over the place. They tried to pretend that many staff wouldn't be worse off - as if teachers couldn't work out that a pay freeze (now extended, see pages 8-9), increased contributions and a longer working life added up to "you've been screwed". Who do they think teaches maths? And when ministers did get around to making a serious offer, they followed it by stamping feet and threatening to withdraw it if unions didn't sign up sharpish. Jehovah's Witnesses have been more convincing.

Up until now, the unions have played a better hand than the Government. But they are in serious danger of overplaying it. Whatever the cold fury that teachers feel about reduced pensions, no one believes that entitlements will be retained. The Opposition refuses to back the strikes while the Government follows a script drawn up by a former Labour minister. A political consensus is emerging: public sector pensions are unaffordable and the time to make a deal is limited.

The actuarial evidence wafted around by the unions is irrelevant. Even assuming that their figures are correct and teachers' pensions are fully funded, they are only solvent because the taxpayer picks up two-thirds of the bill. And she is skint. Yes, teachers, too, pay taxes. But their taxes are levied on wages derived from revenues taken from those working in the private sector, four-fifths of all employees. Nor do they fund private sector pensions, which are minuscule.

The average teacher's pension is modest, #163;10,000, but it is more than five times that of the average paid in the private sector. So, to maintain the level of pension to which teachers have become accustomed means persuading those who have five times less to fund it. Is that remotely realistic? We shouldn't encourage a "race to the bottom", the unions retort. Too late. Most employees are at the bottom and in no mood to fork out to stop a small minority joining them.

No long-term campaign can succeed without public support. And it simply isn't there. Most polls that ask if striking is "supported" rather than "justified" show majorities against. Those proportions will only grow as industrial action bites and the Government reminds the electorate that the pension-rich demand to be funded by the pension-poor.

Teachers are entitled to feel angry and cheated. They entered into a contract that has been unilaterally rewritten. But a battle over pensions isn't sustainable and will look pretty indulgent as unemployment soars and the economy tanks. The unions should settle - and settle soon.

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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