The whole country owes a great deal to teachers. Teachers are highly skilled; they are dedicated; they work very hard. The improvement in pupils' achievement, and hence the increase in the skills of the population, could not have been achieved without the help of teachers.
Maybe that isn't what teachers expect to hear from the Secretary of State.But it is what I and my ministerial colleagues say again and again, in our public speeches and when we visit schools. Unfortunately it doesn't get reported very often, because the news media prefer disagreement and conflict and criticism. So I am delighted to have the opportunity to say it here.
I am saddened when I read reports of teachers' low morale. I recognise that the solution lies partly outside the profession. The media, for example, could present a more positive image of teaching. Teachers' employers and unions could sing the praises of teachers and the profession more than they do. Most parents give support to their children's teachers, but there is a minority who do not. Attempts to blame teachers for wider ills of society will be firmly resisted by me and my ministerial colleagues.
The current debate about the future of the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme has been portrayed in some quarters as a Government attack on teachers. Not so. We live in an age of very rapid technological progress and social development. Life is changing around us and education must change with it. We need to prepare our children and ourselves for the challenges of the 21st century. Education is at the forefront of that process.
So it is very important that we should have a valued and confident teaching profession leading the way in education. Teachers should be proud of what they are and the job they do. They should be looking to develop and train themselves in a process of lifetime learning. The importance of their role in society should lead them to be enthusiastic about contributing all they can.
In the current debate about teachers' pensions there is much common ground between all sides. First it is clear that the current teachers' pensions arrangements cannot continue unaltered.
The superannuation scheme, which was established in 1922, can no longer meet the current demands it is facing and can no longer be afforded. Something needs to be done, either to increase the value of the scheme or to reduce the demands placed upon it. All sides are agreed on that analysis. The question is what to do?
One approach would be to increase significantly employers' contributions to the scheme in order to provide enough money to meet the likely demands until the end of the century and beyond. This would probably have the effect of doubling contribution rates by the end of the century.
It would divert precious resources away from classrooms and into the pension scheme. The other alternativ e - the one the Government proposed in its recent consultation - was that costed by the independent Government Actuary. His analysis suggested that if we were to transfer the costs of premature retirements to the employers and reduce the number of early retirements, we could both fund an ongoing number of retirements and reduce the employers' contribution rate. This would mean that employers could meet the cost of premature retirement without affecting other programmes. And it would mean a level of early retirements probably no lower than 25 per cent below the current level. We believe and continue to believe that this is the most sensible way of making employers accountable for their decisions on premature retirement.
What has happened since I made my proposals is that a number of education organisations including LEAs have put out alarmist stories ranging from the suggestion that all early retirements in future will cease, to those bordering on the ludicrous suggesting that teachers who have already retired will lose their pensions. Judging by some of the letters that my department is receiving I am not surprised that teachers are concerned. We need to stamp on these scare stories and dispel some of the myths currently being peddled.
It is a myth that "burnt-out" teachers will be trapped in our schools, ruining the quality of education in them. At present only one in five teachers stays until the age of 60. I simply do not believe that the remaining four out of five teachers who take retirement are all incapable of continuing to teach effectively. The teacher associations will do themselves and the profession no good with the public if they insist that most teachers cannot cope once they reach their 50s or that teachers have nothing to offer once they have reached the age of 50.
Another myth is that the current arrangements are somehow good value for money. Certainly some schools can currently make budget savings by granting premature retirement to older teachers, and taking on younger teachers who cost them less in salary. But that arrangement takes no account of the cost to the public purse of premature retirement. Once that is taken into account, there is an overall cost when a teacher is granted premature retirement. The new arrangements will make that apparent to employers. It must surely be right that when an education institution takes a management decision, it should be aware of the financial consequences.
We need experienced teachers to continue to drive up standards. It cannot make sense to allow so many skilled teachers to drop out of the profession when they are at their peak and when their wisdom and knowledge are in most demand. We need a balanced variety of youth and experience; of new teachers and old; and a healthy turnover of staff.
Nothing I have proposed will prevent a continuing turnover of staff. What it will do is give local authorities and schools the resources and responsibility for managing their staff, for taking decisions about who should take early retirement and when and, yes, paying for those early retirements rather then expecting the Government to pick up the bill. No other industry or profession would expect us to do that, nor should they.
I cannot anticipate now my final decisions following the consultation, but I am clear that reform is needed. It will be a mark of the teaching profession's maturity and standing if it accepts the need for sensible reform rather than clings to an early retirement arrangement that very few others in our society enjoy and that is diverting more and more resources from schools and colleges.
Let me finish where I began: teachers are highly skilled, highly dedicated and a highly respected profession.
It must be right to seek to ensure that the best members of that profession remain in teaching for as long as they can. Parents and the general public must wonder why 80 per cent of teachers are currently retiring before the age of 60, when most people in other walks of life work to at least that age.
My proposals address a problem that we all accept exists and that we all know must be addressed. I am sure that they will help us to develop a teaching workforce that can help to prepare our children and ourselves for the challenges of the 21st century.