The pensions row may doom this blossoming love affair

15th July 2011 at 01:00

One of my favourite characters in literature is Pandarus - not the doughty warrior who appears in Homer's Iliad, but the Pandarus who pops up in Boccaccio and Chaucer, a semi-comic figure who acts as the go-between in the relationship of those tormented lovers, Troilus and Cressida.

The last thing perky Pandarus wants is to leave well alone. In fact, he is never happier than when he is busying himself with others' affairs, sticking his nose in and giving advice, whether wanted or not. In Chaucer he is also a bibliophile, an expert on rhetoric, and the author of countless proverbs and sayings which, as the tale unfolds, become increasingly meaningless.

It may seem a bit far-fetched but it is quite illuminating to think of the relationship between Troilus and Cressida as being a bit like the one that presently exists between state and independent schools. Even if it was not quite love at first sight, it is still a relationship that has grown from thorny beginnings into reasonable bloom.

And Pandarus, of course, is the Government, cherishing the hope that Troilus and Cressida will become more than just friends and wasting thousands and thousands of words on the benefits of them getting together, especially if Cressida gives birth to an academy programme that represents - and how often have we heard this? - "the best practice" in both sectors?

All the rhetoric about this partnership scenario, in the last few years, has been recycled endlessly. But now, alas, there is a new complication in the story.

In Lord Hutton's report on public-sector pensions, the stark statement that "it is in principle undesirable for future non-public service workers to have access to public service pension schemes" is one that the coalition Government has accepted without blinking and that everybody in the independent sector is hoping and praying will be "forgotten" when the Government puts forward its own pension proposals in the autumn.

Given that some 80 per cent of the teachers in independent schools belong to the teachers' pension scheme (TPS), any decision to defend Hutton's point of principle and exclude them would have a disastrous effect, obliging independent schools to create their own schemes at a punishing cost to fee-paying parents who are already struggling in this recession to keep their heads above water.

Beyond this, however, such a change would bring the traffic of teachers between the sectors to a shuddering halt, at least on one side of the carriageway.

Allow this to transpire and what, one wonders, might then happen to our joint study days, our "open" enrichment sessions and the teacher exchanges we have laboured to forge between the sectors? What of the independent schools allegedly queuing up to sponsor academies? And what would we say then to Dame Suzi Leather and the Charity Commission if they rediscover their mojo and return to beating the drum on charitable benefit?

Exclude independent schools from the TPS and it doesn't take a genius to recognise that the old blocks and barriers that we thought we had seen the last of would reappear - and the distrust, suspicion and prejudice that used to divide state and independent would re-emerge, perhaps stronger than ever.

So what will Pandarus do? If Hutton's recommendation is finally adopted, how will he manage the shift from encouraging Troilus and Cressida to get together and then building a financial fence to keep us apart? And even as a lover of rhetoric, what could Pandarus possibly say that would ease the pain of that split or fool us into believing that separation and divisiveness were always part of the overall strategy?

For all schools - and not just independent ones - this autumn will be an interesting time as we wait for Pandarus to resolve his dilemmas, twisting in the wind as governments tend to do in times of crisis.

And if Troilus and Cressida are still seeing each other for now, there is a dawning apprehension, a fear for the future, and for the literary minded a new twist on an old tale: that it is bumbling, apparently benevolent Pandarus who might turn out, after all, to be the villain who causes the tragedy.

Alistair Macnaughton is head of The King's School, Gloucester.

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