Fickle keepers of pensions purse
Last year's unpopular changes to government regulations on early retirement have created the mistaken impression that teachers throughout Britain will find it equally difficult to escape from the classroom.
But local education authorities, having been left to foot much of the bill for early retirement, are exercising their right to introduce their own rules over who goes and when.
Most have imposed more stringent criteria, including age limits below which no application for premature retirement will be considered. This means teachers in some authorities will have to wait until they are nearly 60, while colleagues in other LEAs may be allowed access to their pension in their early 50s.
Marion Bird, deputy head of pensions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says: "Some LEAs are now saying that, providing it's in the best interest of the school, they will pay for a teacher to retire at 55. Others are insisting that you must be over 58 or even over 59. But all local authorities have tightened up."
Unions stress that local variations are nothing new, as some LEAs have always offered more generous pension enhancements than others. But the new system is more likely to create anomalies over age and the circumstances applying in a school before a teacher can start drawing his or her core pension.
No teacher in Hertfordshire will be granted early retirement until they are at least 55, unless their school is closing, in which case staff may be allowed to retire from the age of 50. Mick Connah, the county's head of education personnel, says that the LEA is facing a teacher shortage and wants to retain as many staff as possible.
Jon Berry, the National Union of Teachers' divisional secretary, says staff aged 50 to 55 who face redundancy will be left "high and dry", as they no longer have the option of teaching part time until they retire. "Other authorities are not imposing age limits and are offering much larger enhancements," he says.
In neighbouring Buckinghamshire, teachers facing redundancy may still be allowed early retirement from 50, although nobody will be allowed to leave a school on the grounds of organisational efficiency until they are at least 57.
Wigan has declined to impose age limits, preferring to judge each case on its merits, but teachers will still find it tougher to retire early as all applications will have to be considered by a panel of councillors.
Leicestershire originally stated that no teacher would be allowed to retire below the age of 55 but, following union pressure, agreed that 50 to 55-year-olds who can demonstrate "exceptional circumstances" may put their cases before county councillors and the director of education.
The new retirement rules also apply in Scotland and Wales. Ken Wimbor, assistant secretary for the Educational Institute of Scotland, says it is unlikely that many teachers will be granted premature retirement in the near future. Cardiff's unitary authority has stated firmly that staff may only take early retirement if they work in a school that is seeking voluntary redundancies.
However, Cardiff's education personnel officer, Jacqueline Weare, says that after last summer's "mass exodus" of 96 teachers, it is hard to find staff under 60 who want to retire.
The national picture will not become clear until next term when most applications for early retirement will be lodged, but nearly all local authorities have reduced or scrapped the "added years" enhancement that they have traditionally paid on top of the pension a teacher has accrued.
Councils that have not imposed age limits stress that all applications, especially from teachers in their early 50s, will depend upon sufficient funds being available in the budget. Discrepancies could also arise over cases where teachers are granted retirement on health grounds.
Unions are angry that many LEAs have not increased the amount they spend on early retirement packages to reflect the 0.85 per cent reduction in the employers' contribution rate to the new superannuation scheme. Hertfordshire, for example, expects to save about Pounds 1.3 million next year but has only increased the amount it spends on early retirements by Pounds 600,000 to Pounds 2.5 million.
Mike Walker, of the Local Government Management Board, points out that one reason for the changes to the regulations is to increase local accountability and encourage LEAs to use early retirement as a management tool.
"The knack for LEA officers will be to provide enough money to pay for the early retirements which they really need," he says. "Sensible policies will leave something open for examination on an individual basis, but you need to give a fairly clear message to schools."