There's a reason why teachers are speaking with one voice on pensions: they know they're being cheated
Something remarkable, but unremarked, is happening in staffrooms up and down the country. In primaries, secondaries and special schools, in state-funded and independent schools and academies, and colleges. It's in addition to the normal chat about Sats, exams, and children; in addition to moaning about management, becoming an academy, or how to make ends meet this year. It started as a mumble, but now it's a roar.
Teachers and lecturers are finding out how the Government's proposals for their pensions will hit their pockets and their futures, and they do not like it one bit.
Members of teaching union the ATL come from all political persuasions and none, but regardless of how they voted in the 2010 general election they think the proposals are completely unfair. As far as they are concerned, the pension was a major incentive to join the profession. In return for an unspectacular salary compared with other degree-level professions, they receive a reasonable (annual average #163;10,000), certainly not gold-plated, but secure pension. It's a deal.
ATL members are angry because they feel cheated - and it takes a lot to anger them. They will not accept that, just because many private-sector employers hugely bungled the management of their pension schemes, the healthy Teachers' Pension Scheme (TPS) should be dragged down, too.
When exhorted to join the real world, they say that close contact with a range of children and young people puts them in a far better position to understand what ordinary people are going through than most MPs or newspaper editors, who spend too much time in tearooms and bars in Westminster and not enough time with real people. Teachers and lecturers know full well that many people are suffering a pay freeze, the threat or reality of redundancy, reductions in benefits, and a VAT rise - but so are they. Why should they be singled out for an extra tax which will be well over 3 per cent of their pay?
Some, it is true, believe the myth being peddled that there is no alternative, but most have changed, or are changing, their minds. They know that changes to the TPS were introduced in 2007 precisely to deal with the long-term implications of increased life expectancy; that the Government has neglected to carry out the valuation of the scheme required by regulation; that the National Audit Office reported last year that the new arrangements were working well, and predicted a significant reduction in the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) that needs to be devoted to public-sector pensions over the next 50 years; and that the Government has repeatedly stated that it wants some #163;2.8 billion extra in contributions soon, not because the pension schemes need it, but to reduce the budget deficit - in effect as a tax on public-sector workers.
However, the pensions dispute was not invented by nasty left-wing union leaders. The idea that I am left-wing reduces my friends to helpless mirth. No, the pressure has come from ordinary members in schools and colleges. When members in a top public school declare that it is time they stood up for themselves, the Government needs to realise it has a widespread problem.
The stuff printed by the newspapers may have an effect on public opinion, but it will not wash with teachers or lecturers. They know they're being cheated. They know the proposals are unfair. And fairness is very important to teachers; they spend their working lives trying to instil it in those they teach.
So where do we go from here? In the first place, ATL's conference and executive overwhelmingly called for a strike ballot which opens today and closes on 14 June. A yes vote from the "moderate ATL" would send the Government a message of huge weight and clarity. The very strong messages from heads' unions the NAHT and ASCL must also weigh heavily. We are delighted to be working closely with them and, of course, the NUT and UCU unions with whom we would co-ordinate any strike.
The Government must respond by talking honestly about its proposals. Chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude have been talking to the TUC since February, but we still await any justification for the "pay more, work longer, get less" proposals. These talks, intended to be completed in June, are supposed to establish the principles on which each of the public-sector pension schemes is to be negotiated, but at present there appears to be no prospect of agreement.
And the Government must remove the loaded gun from our heads. It has told us it intends to consult "soon after the end of June" on firm proposals for pension contribution increases. But any increase would need to be part of an overall package of negotiated changes to the TPS.
Very few teachers or lecturers, and no ATL members, like the idea of a strike. It creates profound moral dilemmas. ATL members believe in the force of reason, and become very uncomfortable at the idea that reason has failed. Many had their own schooling disrupted by the messy strikes in the Eighties - and let's be clear, there is no prospect of a return to that. But, they are saying, the Government does not appear to be listening to reason, so what is the alternative? They have tried lobbying and petitioning - more than 15,000 of them.
I am prepared to take part in any discussions which could lead to suspending strike action. All I need is the gun removed from my head and a significant demonstration of willingness to compromise, together with some justification for changes to the TPS, which is already working well and is set to become less of a burden on the Treasury.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL.