Look before you leave

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Raising children, looking after elderly relatives, or receiving poor advice has cost many women teachers a decent pension. Susannah Kirkman reports on what others can learn from their experiences

Women teachers are far more likely to face penury in retirement, according to the latest government statistics, yet the new pension proposals will do nothing to boost their benefits.

The grim news is that the years spent caring for their families during career breaks are rewarded by much lower pensions. While the average pension for a male teacher retiring in 20034 was pound;12,263, women received pound;7,887, more than pound;2,000 below the minimum wage and roughly a third of the national average wage.

The poor pension is partly the result of lower salaries and the fact that disproportionately few women become headteachers, for instance. But women also clock up fewer years of service than men because they take time off to bring up children or look after elderly relatives.

The most recent figures show that only 792 women compared with 1,834 men managed to put in 35 to 40 years' service, while only 60, or just over half of 1 per cent, completed the 40-plus years needed to guarantee a pension worth half their final salary.

Women's pensions may also have been reduced because they withdrew their pension contributions when they took a career break or because they have "preserved" benefits; they never returned to teaching so their pension is based on the very low salary they received many years ago.

Many older women also face the double whammy of a poorer state pension than their male colleagues. Thanks to erroneous advice handed out by the old Department of Health and Social Security in the 1970s and 1980s, women who had opted to pay the lower married women's national insurance contributions were not warned that this would result in a far smaller state pension.

To add insult to injury, these women are not eligible for home responsibilities protection either, which credits women who are not working but who are receiving child benefit with full NI contributions.

Union advisers would like home responsibilities protection to apply to those who were bringing up children before 1978, when the system was introduced. They have also been urging the Department for Work and Pensions to allow women who opted to pay the inferior married women's contributions to make up the potential shortfall in their state pensions.

Some unions also believe that the Teachers' Pensions Scheme should include a form of home responsibilities protection. One motion at a recent union conference called for the Government to take action on the inequitable pensions system affecting women teachers taking time out to look after their families.

But the Government's pensions proposals have ignored these suggestions, and the Department for Education and Skills has only proposed one change to the TPS which might help women: the automatic inclusion of part-timers in the scheme.

So what can women do to improve their pensions? They must, at the very least, consider all their options, or they will be faced with a gaping hole in their finances when they retire.

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