Government ministers may continue to insist that there has been no retreat over the tightening of early-retirement regulations, but they now have almost as much egg on their faces as an infant at the breakfast table. Four weeks ago, after a High Court challenge by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Department for Education and Employment had to issue a "clarification" confirming that teachers who retired early on March 31 would be allowed to return to school to do supply work after all. Now the Easter deadline for early retirement under the old funding rules is to be postponed until the summer.
John Major recently went on record as saying that such a postponement would not be countenanced. But local authorities and unions have for several weeks been anticipating that he would have to eat his words. The embarrassing about-turn demonstrates yet again the Government's unfortunate habit of rushing into ill-considered decisions that it is later forced to retract. Coming in the week when it was announced that only 6,810 of the 558,370 cases of mis-sold personal pensions have been settled, it also confirms the impression that pensions policy is not one of the Government's strong cards.
The change of heart on early retirement has come too late to delay the departure of many of the estimated 12,000-plus teachers who decided to go before March 31.
It may also cause trouble and expense in some schools which try to unpick at this late stage interim arrangements designed to tide them over until a new appointment in September.
But it should be welcomed nevertheless. It will enable many teachers of exam classes to steer their pupils through to GCSE and A-level rather than leave at Easter with a heavy heart. It will also allow schools more time to recruit suitable replacements. But here endeth the good news.
When the last batch of early retirees leave at the end of the summer term many of their middle-aged colleagues who remain behind may imagine they can hear a terrible sound reverberating around their school: the noise of a prison door slamming shut. At present, there seems little reason to fear the worst-case scenario - that teachers who stay on could be made redundant and then have to wait until they are 60 for a pension. The Sixth Form Colleges Employers' Forum may also be exaggerating when it predicts that early retirement will in future be offered to only one person per college every three years. But as the long-term cost to an employer of allowing someone to retire at 50 may be well over Pounds 100,000, there is little doubt that early retirement will become the exception rather than the rule.
Furthermore, it almost goes without saying that no one should expect a Labour government to be any more benevolent. Labour is also worried by the age profile of the teaching profession, and conscious of the terrible financial and recruitment problems that will ensue if teachers continue to leave at 55 or 56 on average. No fewer than 48 per cent of male teachers and nearly 42 per cent of their female colleagues were aged 40-49 in 1995.
Prudent governments have to consider such statistics, but the country's teachers are also entitled to be treated humanely. As this paper has consistently advocated, a method must be found for ensuring that middle-aged teachers can make a dignified withdrawal from the profession. Gillian Shephard may feel that teachers are at the height of their powers in their 50s, but a 57-year-old arthritic games teacher or a worn-out 55-year-old who has worked in tough inner-city schools for more than 30 years would beg to disagree.