6th May 2011 at 01:00
The implacable versus the immovable? Pensions stand-off is a tough one to call

Last week the National Association of Head Teachers voted by a majority of Soviet proportions to ballot its members about taking industrial action over plans to cut the value of their pensions. When delegates of a moderate managerial union vote by 99.6 per cent to consider striking, ministers can safely assume that their pension proposals are slightly less welcome than the Duchess of York at a Windsor family wedding. The arguments over academies, the battles over the curriculum, the despondency over budgets are as nothing compared to the cold fury teachers feel at the prospect of a diminished pension pot.

The main teaching unions are preparing the ground for co-ordinated action. If headteachers join them, it ups the ante considerably. However, they will be faced by a Government determined to curtail the cost of public sector pensions. It has yet to respond formally to the Hutton review on the subject, but it is unlikely that an administration obsessed with deficit reduction will dilute his proposals significantly. We could be about to witness the most serious confrontation between implacable unions and immovable Government since the education battles of the 1980s (Comment, page 23).

Dig a bit deeper, however, and neither side's position is as solid as it first appears. Headteachers are in an awkward position. They stand to lose most financially from the changes proposed by Hutton, but the prospect of managers striking never sits well with their responsibilities as leaders. Authority inevitably loses a bit of its lustre. What would the country think of striking doctors, for instance? To which hacked off heads might be tempted to respond: "Bugger the country. We had a deal; we didn't create this mess." All of which is true but sadly irrelevant.

The average annual pension for a senior school leader who has clocked up a fair number of years in the job is roughly #163;25,000. To enjoy that pension, an employee in the private sector would have to amass a pot of #163;400,000. Only a small proportion of people, even in well-paid jobs, will ever manage to do that. To ask the public to support a strike that will inconvenience many in defence of benefits most cannot even dream of is, frankly, stretching it. And a strike that doesn't get the public onside has no hope of success.

On the other hand, the Government is also vulnerable. Its entire education policy rests on attracting and empowering excellent school leaders. How can it hope to do that if its policies make the rewards for responsibility much less attractive? Good candidates in many areas are already in short supply. Inducing a wave of experienced staff to take early retirement will only make matters worse. Demoralising the leaders necessary for ministers' key reforms isn't very clever. Concessions will have to be made. But who will blink first remains to be seen.


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