Pouring quick-drying cement into the teachers' early retirement escape tunnel was always going to be a risky business for the Government. It's not unknown, after all, for those who use this material to end up buried beneath it. So far, Gillian Shephard has avoided that fate, but as this week's letter to the teachers' employers shows, there are some messy spillages to be tidied up.
Ministers will no doubt deny that they have climbed down by rephrasing the advice on early retirement that was issued to employers on December 13.This caused panic among those hoping to retire before the premature retirement regulations change on April 1 because it appeared to suggest that they could not leave if their employer intended to offer them either part-time or full-time work after Easter. An early exit also seemed to be ruled out if their class would have to be taken by a supply teacher or amalgamated with another class.
This letter triggered the farce at Wright Robinson School in Manchester, where staff bade farewell to two of their retiring colleagues just before Christmas only to be told that they would not be leaving after all. It also prompted the court action by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers which appears to have forced the Department for Education and Employment to issue this week's "clarification".
The Department, which claims that its December letter was misinterpreted, could not have relished the prospect of Cherie Booth QC challenging its legal team, and will be relieved that the union has called off the High Court action that was to be heard on Thursday.
The ATL is even more pleased, although it accepts it has won a battle rather than a campaign. This week's letter from the Department is significant because it confirms that "decisions about whether premature retirement should be awarded are made by employers according to their own particular circumstances". In other words, they can allow teachers to retire early and then offer them extra work, provided they can justify such a decision. The Secretary of State "might" only intervene if an employer has taken a decision that is "manifestly unreasonable or unlawful".
That should embolden schools and local education authorities and make it easier for teachers to beat the March 31 deadline. But both unions and employers will be demanding more substantial concessions. Only cock-eyed optimists are still hoping that the Government will turn back the clock and release its squeeze on early retirement. Even a Labour government would be unlikely to accede to the unions' demands because the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme is notionally #163;1.5 billion overdrawn and early teacher retirements cost the Exchequer #163;480 million last year alone. But the Easter deadline may well be pushed back to the summer.
In the long term, however, it is clear that the Government will have to give rather more thought to the management of its ageing teaching force. At present, two-thirds of teachers are aged over 40 and no fewer than 72,000 are above 50, a substantial total considering that the average retirement age is now 55. This is quite a low average, although teachers in countries such as Germany also tend to bow out in their fifties and Italian teachers, until recently, could retire as young as 35. But as successive Conservative governments have piled reform upon reform on to schools and allowed class sizes to rise for the past six years it is hardly surprising that teachers have wanted to make an early exit.
Any good employer would ensure that these pressures are eased and would also give serious consideration to the idea of allowing fifty-somethings who are denied early retirement to make a dignified and gradual withdrawal from teaching. Teachers heading towards the end of their careers should be allowed to offload some responsibilities or work fewer hours in return for a reduced salary. But careful consideration will have to be given to any knock-on consequences for their pensions, and the Government may have to provide financial support for such an initiative. At present that seems improbable, but it is an investment that could pay handsome dividends.