Editorial - Pensions fury is inevitable. But militancy isn't a foregone conclusion

11th February 2011 at 00:00

It is an article of faith that teachers are not an excitable crowd. Screaming pupils, irate parents, brooding inspectors, duff computers - very little fazes them. Confronted by all that the world can throw at them, they behave like Buddhist Clint Eastwoods - tough but serene, islands of calm in a maelstrom of humanity. Except when it comes to pensions. Talk about pensions and even the most temperate teacher becomes as boisterous as Sally Bercow on a girls' night out with Lindsay Lohan. Nothing, apparently, is more likely to turn placid professionals into placard-waving militants than the prospect of pension tampering.

This assumption is backed by the latest union surveys (page 3). They found widespread opposition to the notion that pension contributions should be increased and entitlements limited. Few heads, it seems, ticked the box labelled "Go ahead, dock my pay. The Government needs the money more than I do". But will understandable opposition to any reduction in benefits translate into industrial action? That will depend on the deftness of ministers and whether the changes are perceived to be as reasonable as they can be - they are never going to be welcome.

Initial reaction to John Hutton's interim report in October, for instance, was fairly muted. Most people accept that we have a pension problem. Pensions now consume 20 per cent of the total education budget. Lord Hutton's suggestions to tackle this seem reasonable. Proposed increases in employee contributions and a move from final to an average salary scheme were balanced by an acknowledgment that public sector pensions were not "gold-plated" - the average teacher pension is only #163;10,000 - and his assertion that he did not advocate public following private pensions in "a race to the bottom".

Unfortunately, the Department for Education has chosen to emulate Ann Widdecombe's stomping rather than Lord Hutton's elegant two-step in this intricate pensions dance. Trying to sneak a rise in employee contributions before Hutton's final report and at a higher 4 per cent rather than the widely trailed 3 per cent was clumsy. A swift U-turn followed, but it left the impression that ministers were cavalier when they should have been considered.

The unions are correct - a crude overhaul of pension entitlements does have the potential to convert moderate teachers into militants. But it is not inevitable. A significant number - 77 per cent - said that they would be prepared to pay higher contributions if benefits were protected. That suggests that gradual and considered changes - limiting major upheaval to new entrants, say - would be grudgingly acceptable, if not palatable. But the Government has to get the choreography right. As Miss Widdecombe and Mrs Bercow can attest, it's often not what you do but how you do it that counts. gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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