United front on pensions breaks down in tiers

24th February 2012 at 00:00
Heads' and teachers' unions clash over contributions

The unprecedented sight of heads marching alongside teachers during the 30 November strike symbolised what was, in the notoriously splintered world of education unionism, an unfamiliar show of unity. But the harmony appears to have been short-lived, with differences of opinion becoming increasingly apparent in the pensions dispute.

TES has learned that a gulf between the teachers' and heads' unions is causing tension in the ongoing negotiations. The latest proposals from the government would see top-earning heads making contributions that are 50 per cent higher than the proportion of salary required from the lowest paid teachers.

Heads are concerned that this, combined with the switch from a final-salary to a career-average scheme, means their members are being punished more harshly than the rest of the profession. Behind closed doors, heads' union the NAHT and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) have been calling for a more "flat" contribution structure, so that the pain is shared equally.

The classroom unions' response to the idea has been predictably cool. They believe that heads who earn more can afford to take on more of the burden. "The difficult thing now will be getting the unions to agree and put a united case to the government," one union source said. "At this stage, the two heads' unions are out on their own. The classroom unions are more opposed to their (proposals) than some of the government's suggestions."

Under the current structure, all teachers pay a flat contribution rate of 6.4 per cent. Under the most recent proposals, a tiered structure would see teachers earning less than #163;26,000 paying in 7.9 per cent of their salary. The contributions would rise incrementally for those on higher salaries, up to 12.4 per cent for those heads earning #163;112,000 or more.

While admitting that ASCL is "very sympathetic" to the argument that the lowest paid teachers should face a lower contribution rate, general secretary Brian Lightman fears the tiered structure would deter many in the profession from applying for promotion, for fear of paying the penalty of increased pension contributions.

"This is a major concern to our members," he said. "We understand the (classroom unions') arguments. We have been actively discussing how we can meet their needs as well. But we have to consider the needs of our members."

NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby told TES he would prefer to see "two or three" tiers of contributions, rather than the six levels currently on the table. "There's a steep gradient, which means that some heads would be seeing their contribution rates doubling. It's the middle group of deputy heads who would suffer most from the proposals. Proportionally, they will be suffering from a bigger increase in rates than anyone else," he said.

Finding a middle ground to satisfy all parties is proving difficult. Martin Freedman, teaching union ATL's head of pay and pensions, described the situation as "tricky". "We all have people who would lose out," he said. "In some cases, the amount of contribution you pay could affect whether you go for a moderate promotion, such as from assistant head to deputy head. But it's (the heads' unions') solution I find difficult. I don't agree that everyone who gets paid #163;26,000 or over should contribute the same."

But with the deadline for the unions to reveal their final positions on the latest pensions deal delayed until March, there is at least a little more time for the unions to reach an agreement.

"What we want to avoid at this stage is falling out with each other," Mr Freedman added. "We made significant progress by staying united."

The latest proposal

Proposed pension contribution tiers (applicable from 2015).

7.9%

Contribution on a #163;15,000-25,000 salary

8.5%

Contribution on a #163;26,000-31,999 salary

9.4%

Contribution on a #163;32,000-39,999 salary

10.5%

Contribution on a #163;40,000-74,999 salary.

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