The number of teachers applying for early retirement is set to double this year, according to a teachers' union's estimate of staff joining the stampede to apply to leave before pension regulation changes.
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has surveyed 36 of its regional secretaries and found that twice as many teachers are applying to leave as last year. Of those aged 50 and over, 12 per cent have put in applications and a further 2 per cent are expected to seek retirement on grounds of ill health.
Nigel de Gruchy, the union's general secretary, said projection of these figures suggests that up to 26,000 teachers could disappear. This shortfall would take effect on March 31, before the summer term, though it is likely that many of the "retired" teachers may return part-time to complete the academic year.
Government statistics from 1995-96 show that 13,055 staff took early retirement, 5,980 retired on ill-health grounds and 4,497 left at normal retirement age.
Under controversial new plans announced by the Government in the autumn, the costs of early retirement will have to be met by local education authorities, schools and colleges from April next year.
Mr de Gruchy said: "This has caused panic . . . a mass stampede for the exit by teachers afraid it will be their last chance to retire early. " The teacher unions say they have been deluged with calls from conccerned members. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has received just under 2,000 calls a week since the change was announced.
Consultation on the changes ends on January 17 and the unions are hoping that they can at least push the date back. The National Union of Teachers will lobby MPs on Tuesday. A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said that if teachers are allowed to leave this year councils will still be liable for a proportion of the pension payments.
The Government has bowed to one of the local councils' fears by agreeing to introduce a clause into the Education Bill which will allow LEAs to deduct pension costs from a school's budget if the school has not obtained the LEA's agreement on the retirement. But LEAs fear that if the Bill falls they will be left to operate an unworkable policy.