Since plans to overhaul teachers' pensions were announced in January, ministers and education unions have remained deadlocked, with both sides refusing to concede any ground.
But on Wednesday came the first signs that the Government was prepared to respond to widespread fury about the proposed changes. Chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander confirmed that an improved offer was on the table for teachers and other public sector workers.
But while ministers have signalled that they are willing to meet the unions part way, general secretaries are standing firm; they plan to press ahead with the TUC day of industrial action on 30 November. Despite the unions welcoming the "significant" move by the Government, the worrying prospect of national strikes closing thousands of schools across the country remains a strong possibility.
Under this week's proposals, teachers due to retire in the next 10 years would be "protected" from the changes - a clear response to criticism that moves to increase workers' contributions would lead to a mass exodus of staff close to retirement age. Although they would still face higher monthly contributions, they would not have to work any longer, and would keep their existing final-salary schemes (see panel, right).
Plans to reduce the accrual rate - the rate at which pensions increase in value - have also been scrapped. It will remain at the the current rate for teachers who have entered the profession since 2007.
"The public sector unions are almost totally in agreement that this is a significant move by the Government, but it's come late in the day," said Martin Freedman, head of pay, conditions and pensions at education union the ATL. "Although it is a significant improvement, it doesn't really deal with the main concerns we have been talking about for the last eight months.
"Members will still be unable to retire before they are 68. Teachers may technically receive the same - or even better - for their pension, but they will have to work eight years longer to get it, and pay for it. Reluctantly, ATL will be taking part in the TUC day of action." The ATL executive meets on Saturday to decide whether it will strike or take other action.
The NASUWT confirmed that the union's ballot for industrial action would open today as planned, with a view to taking strike action on 30 November and a rolling boycott of non-teaching activities. Heads' union the NAHT will also press on with its strike ballot, which ends on Wednesday. However, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Brian Lightman confirmed that his union would not be balloting members until Government negotiations have been exhausted.
Addressing MPs on Wednesday, Mr Alexander, a Lib Dem, said the improved offer amounted to a "fair reward for a lifetime spent serving the public". He said the change in accruals amounted to an 8 per cent increase in teachers' benefits. He called on general secretaries to "grasp the opportunity that this offer represents", describing it as "a sustainable deal that will endure for at least 25 years".
The Department for Education has now written to every school in the country, outlining the offer. "The Government has been listening carefully to workers," a spokesman said. "This is a fair and affordable deal - protecting teachers' existing pension rights and shielding those close to retirement from reforms.
"It's right that the unions now look very carefully at what is on the table. We don't doubt that there are long, hard discussions ahead - but this offer makes sure teachers' pensions are stronger than pretty much any available in the private sector."
In contrast to shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg's assertion earlier in the week that teachers "have every right to go on strike", shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves was quick to distance Labour from the "confrontational stance" of both ministers and the unions, and warned against strike action. "There is still time for both sides to step back from the brink," she said.
More talks on the future of the teachers' pension scheme are planned to thrash out the details; the unions can at least see that perhaps there is still something left to play for.
But Mr Alexander has made it clear that the offer will only remain on the table until the end of the year. For the first time in the pensions battle, the unions can see a light at the end of the tunnel. But if they want to reach it, they will have to tread quickly and carefully.
WHAT'S ON THE TABLE
New proposed accrual rate* - 160th
Previous proposed accrual rate* - 165th
Proposed increase in contributions for teachers earning pound;40,000-74,999 - 10.5%
Retirement age will gradually increase to - 68
*The percentage of their salary teachers will receive in their pension for each year they work
PENSION FACTS AND FIGURES
Annual cost of public sector pensions - pound;32bn
1m teachers due to retire by April 2022 will have their pensions protected.
Photo: TUC general secretary Brendan Barber outside Congress House after the meeting. (Photo credit: Anna Gordon)
Original headline: Pension concessions may not be enough to stave off more strikes
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