The proposed changes to pension arrangements announced by the Government last October - designed to dramatically curtail early retirement -have caused widespread dismay among older teachers. Many are angry that the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme, the notional pension fund into which they have been paying 6 per cent of their income, has been revealed to be overdrawn by #163;1.5 billion.
"We've been paying in for 30 years to a fund that doesn't exist. I think it's Maxwellian," says one 49-year-old secondary school teacher.
Under the government proposals, consultation on which ends today (January 17), part of the cost of early retirement will be shifted from the TSS, supported by the Exchequer, to local education authorities and schools. The changes, due to be implemented from April 1, have led many teachers - who would otherwise have stayed - to apply for early retirement. While some are exhilarated at the prospect, others regret that they are being forced to join an ignominious rush to leave the profession. "I'm dealing with a number of individuals who feel they are being rushed into retirement," says Peter Jackson, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' field officer for Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. "Each is quite frightened. They're casualties of the system."
Other teachers, particularly those in their late forties who are too young to qualify for early retirement now, feel despair that they are not able to join the rush; they fear being forced to work beyond the point at which their strength and enthusiasm have gone. Some speak of the end of the de facto right to early retirement as "a death sentence" and every teacher knows of another who is off work with long-term, often stress-related, illness.
Far from helping to retain experienced teachers - a stated government aim - the immediate effect of the changes will be to drive many who would have stayed in the profession for several more useful years into other jobs.
Last year, more than 13, 000 teachers took early retirement. How many will go, or try to go, before this year's March deadline is unclear. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, believes the figure could be as high as 17,500 - or one quarter of the 72,000 teachers aged over 50 - while Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers insists it will be "upwards of 15,000". The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, extrapolating from a survey of 63 regional representatives, comes up with a national total of 11, 250.
"There's a world of panic out there," says Brian Clegg, assistant secretary (pensions) of the NASUWT. "The only way of being certain you can get out is to get out as soon as possible."
Mr Clegg says teachers should be aware that there are alternatives for people who can't get early retirement. "Stepping down arrangements" can be agreed with the local authority and governing body to enable teachers heading towards the end of their careers to offload some responsibilities in return for a reduced salary, but with their pensions unaffected. Going part-time may be another option. "You can reduce your workload without destroying in any big sense the value of the pension or lump sum," says Mr Clegg.
Many of the teachers The TES approached for comment were reluctant to speak about the proposed changes, or to go public on their own plans. Some only wanted to speak anonymously; others were too nervous to speak at all. They fear the consequences of returning to the staffroom if it is widely known that they wanted to go but were turned down; they are worried about the local authority seeing their names in print; they feel vulnerable, not least because many are in an uncertain position.
Some local authorities have responded to the government proposals by effectively freezing all early retirement. In Manchester, two staff at Wright Robinson High School had had their leaving parties before being told on the final day of last term that they could not retire after all. One is now back at work, while the other had already been replaced. Their union, the NASUWT, is seeking judicial review of their cases. Other LEAs are still letting teachers go, mindful of the fact that until the end of March they will not be liable for their pensions, say union officials. Along with the anger, sadness and fear is a ubiquitous sense of frustration.
Teachers resent Gillian Shephard's suggestion that early retirement has been abused on a grand scale. She said earlier this month that it "defied credibility" that so many teachers - four out of five -needed to retire before the age of 60. But many feel they have given everything, and if they're not exhausted now they can see the day when they will be. Again and again they say: why doesn't the Government ask itself why people are queuing up to leave teaching?