The privatisation of the teachers' pensions agency has led to a sharp deterioration in service, according to two teaching unions.
Teachers have reported delays in paying retirement benefits and in processing ill-health retirement applications.
Now that the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme is administered by a private company, Capita Managed Services, decisions on pension issues formerly handled by the old Teachers' Pensions Agency have to be referred to the Department for Education and Employment.
Mike Beard, head of pensions at the National Association of Headteachers, said: "We have got complaints coming out of our ears. It's a daily experience to have someone in tears over the phone because of delays in processing applications for ill-health retirement. We were led to believe that the service would not be worse after privatisation, but this promise has not been kept. "
Elaine Goswell-Cross, head of pensions and salaries at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, agreed: "Privatisation has created an extra layer of bureaucracy and everything is much more cumbersome."
A further problem is that teachers no longer have immediate access to the official who is dealing with their case. All telephone enquiries now go through a call centre; teachers are told that someone will ring them back to deal with any unresolved queries.
A spokesman for the DFEE said that the new system had been introduced so that staff working out complex pension calculations were left undisturbed. However, unions say that teachers have received inaccurate advice from staff at the call centre and that calls are often not returned.
There is also said to be a backlog of work in the section dealing with pensions mis-selling, further delaying compensation to victims of the personal pensions debacle, although this is denied by the DFEE. One of the difficulties seems to be that requests for information from the insurance companies often come in batches, swamping staff dealing with mis-selling queries.
The unions recognise that there were an unprecedented number of applications for early retirement before the regulations were changed earlier this year, but they feel that service should be returning to normal by now.
The DFEE notes that out of nearly 100,000 transactions, there were only 55 "valid" complaints during September 1997. It says any delays in dealing with applications for ill-health retirement occur because the criteria have changed.
Under the old rules, teachers could be granted ill-health retirement on the grounds that they no longer functioned efficiently as a teacher. Now they must prove that they are "permanently unable to teach", which may necessitate assessments by several doctors, including a consultant psychiatrist, if they are suffering from stress.
Pensions mix-upPersonal Finance, TES2 page 21