As preparations for one of the biggest days of teacher strikes in recent history are finalised, education secretary Michael Gove has issued a stark warning to unions, stating that there is no additional money in the Government's coffers to fund a more generous pension offer.
Speaking to TES ahead of next week's "day of action", the education secretary claimed there was "no justification" for heads and their teachers to stage the walkout while negotiations were still ongoing.
Thousands of schools are expected to close next Wednesday, including most primaries, as members of heads' union the NAHT and the three main classroom unions, the NUT, the NASUWT and the ATL, prepare to strike over plans to reform teachers' pensions.
The industrial action is in response to Government proposals to increase monthly contributions to teachers' pensions, which are set to go up by 50 per cent, while staff earning over pound;40,000 could see rises of up to 64 per cent.
Earlier this month, the Government surprised many by producing an improved offer that would protect teachers retiring in the next 10 years from any changes and reduce the proposed contribution increases.
However, Treasury ministers have made it clear that these proposals - which so far have been rejected by union bosses - will only remain on the table until the end of the year.
Mr Gove said that while he sympathised with the "basic position" of teachers on pensions, the decision to strike would "undermine" their chances of securing a good deal.
"We've listened. There is a good offer on the table. And there is flexibility within that offer to make sure we tailor any final deal to what professionals deserve," the education secretary said.
"I absolutely want to talk, but the important thing the unions need to recognise is that there is not an additional pot of gold we are hiding from them."
And he warned: "There is a level beyond which, if people push it, then it becomes much more difficult for me to put the case to others within Government that teachers deserve this deal."
Importantly, Mr Gove ruled out the possibility of the retirement age for teachers being reduced from the current proposal of 68, stating that staff who are currently in their 20s and 30s would have to work for a "considerably longer period across the board".
By effectively throwing down the gauntlet, the education secretary has drawn stinging criticism from union leaders, who have condemned his comments as "unacceptable" during negotiations.
NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney said it would be very difficult for the unions engaged in the talks to accept a renewed pensions offer that did not include any additional funding from the Government.
"We believe that if there is any change to the scheme, teachers must be able to retire at the same age and on the same income, and there will be no deal unless there is more money," Mr Courtney said. "Even with the more flexible offer that is on the table, we can't get to where we aim to be without more money from the centre going in to increase the cost ceiling."
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates agreed, adding that Mr Gove's comments were "deeply unhelpful".
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, claimed the Government's renewed offer was "too little, too late".
"Michael Gove can talk tough as much as he wants, but asking teachers to work until they are 68 is unacceptable. He knows it, I know it and parents know it. He is living in a dream world," Dr Bousted said. "These are public servants who work extremely hard and they need to be shown dignity in retirement."
The NAHT is poised to stage the first walkout in its 114-year history next Wednesday, in a move that will result in most primary schools being forced to shut.
Russell Hobby, the union's general secretary, said Mr Gove should start to worry about alienating the profession. "Whatever bright ideas they may have, they need to implement them through headteachers and teachers," Mr Hobby said. "If confidence and trust in the Government is weakened, then the impact of any reforms may be blunted.
"You can push people only so far, and if you lose that trust then those reforms become harder to implement."
Contribution: 6.4% of salary
Accrual rate for new entrants 160th
Retirement age (if joined before 2007) 60
Retirement age for new entrants 65
Contribution: 9.5-9.8% of salary
Accrual rate 165th
Retirement age gradually rising to 68
Contribution: 7.9-12.4% of salary
Accrual rate 160th
Retirement age gradually rising to 68.
Original headline: No hidden `pot of gold' to placate the strikers, warns defiant Mr Gove