Let me out

15th November 1996 at 00:00
It isn't discipline or morality that is preoccupying teachers in schools and colleges this week. As one Enfield head puts it in News Focus (pages 15-17), "the prospect of not being able to retire early is all my teachers are talking about in the staffroom."

It is not difficult to understand the reasons for the Government's recent announcement of a clampdown, by forcing employers to meet the full cost of early retirement from next April. Retirement at 55 or even 50 has now become the norm rather than the exception for teachers, probably on a scale greater than for any comparable profession apart from the police or armed services. As costs have spiralled, the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme - never designed for such pressure - has plunged Pounds 1.5 billion into debt.

It may be that teacher unions are right to claim that contributions could have been better invested, though that probably wouldn't have bridged the gap. Or the Government could have taken the advice of the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, and raised the employers' share of the contributions. But that would have moved the cost to the same local education authority, college, and independent and grant-maintained school employers who are complaining now.

And there was another factor. Ministers were also anxious to stop the haemorrhage of senior staff at a time when the Teacher Training Agency was warning of looming shortages, with the 40-plus teacher bulge nearing the early retirement zone, while pupil numbers continued to rise.

Obviously there was a case to be made for putting a brake on the pensions rush. The many new pressures on teachers during the past 10 years could provide explanation enough for why it was happening. But was it because teachers really suffer more stress than their peer groups in this post-Thatcher age, or partly because the early-pension route was there?

In either event, the explosion of opposition to the proposals now out for consultation leaves little doubt as to the depth of feeling among teachers about their dashed hopes. But this is not just a personal issue. It is also a key management concern for headteachers, college principals and LEA officers, all the more acute for being sprung on them at short notice.

For however compelling the figures on financial losses or teacher numbers, the Government seems to have overlooked the management implications of change. Early retirement has been used by heads and governors as a management tool, as well as a kindness to the tired or dispirited. It has been both a proxy for sacking the incompetent, and a device for balancing the books. A mixed blessing maybe, but its virtual removal could be just as mixed in its effects.

Headteachers have not been gung-ho about sacking failing teachers, whether identified by their own criteria or those of the chief inspector, but many of their weaker colleagues have been eased out by the more humane early retirement route. If that is barred, a more uncompromising management style may be required, and the new rules on severance pay could encourage that.

Leaving early on ill-health grounds may be an alternative, especially when a teacher is going through a bad patch for family or other reasons. But until now it has been possible, and often desirable, for such teachers to return to their old schools on supply cover, fitting easily into routines and ethos and topping up the pension. The new rules will specifically ban any such return to teaching. In any case, it has recently been made much harder to go early on health grounds, and from the point of view of the LEAs who will now pick up more of the cost, early retirement (with or without enhancement), ill-health exits or redundancy all have unaffordable price tags.

As to local management, it is now a commonplace that sacrificing older, more expensive teachers in favour of the newly qualified makes it easier to balance the school books. Sometimes such restructuring provided a way in for the energetic and an acceptable way out for the worn-out, and it certainly opened up quicker promotion prospects, but there were also many experienced practitioners who would rather not have gone, and whose quality was crucial. It could be a plus for the new policy if such premature ejection lost its attractions.

It may be agreed that something had to be done to stop the TPP going broke, but the teacher and local authoritiy associations have a case when they claim that the goalposts will have to be moved more slowly, and with greater attention to the management implications. And ministers should also stop and think why it is that - when retirement age all over Europe is settling around 65 - teachers pin their hopes on getting out at least 10 years earlier.

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