Workers unite over pensions

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Up to 17,000 schools across the UK closed this week as support staff walked out in protest at proposed changes to their pensions.

Unison, the largest support staff union, claimed about two-thirds of schools were forced to close as a result of the action by teaching assistants, dinner ladies, secretaries and caretakers who accuse the Government of treating them unfairly compared with teachers.

A Local Government Association spokesman described Unison's claims as "spurious" and said the strike had affected only between 15 and 20 per cent of English schools. He did admit close to 100 per cent of Welsh schools had closed.

School staff were among the one million council workers who took part in Tuesday's one-day stoppage, the biggest nationwide action since the general strike of 1926.

Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds and Liverpool were worst hit by the protests.

Among the counties badly affected were Cheshire, Devon and Lancashire.

The strike prompted fresh talks with the Government which were continuing as The TES went to press.

The dispute centres on efforts by the Government to reduce the cost to taxpayers of public-sector pensions by making them more like private-sector schemes. The proposals would remove the right of 1.5m members of the local government pension scheme to retire before the age of 65 on a full pension.

Although their official retirement age is already 65, support staff can take advantage of Rule 85, which allows people whose combined age and length of service equals 85 or more to retire earlier on a full pension.

The 11 unions who took part in the action are pressing for that rule to be protected for existing staff. They point to an agreement reached in October which will preserve the retirement age of 60 for existing teachers and civil servants.

Commentators in certain papers said the strikes would alienate taxpayers and that public-sector workers should accept changes already imposed on many in the private sector. They said the Government should force all public-sector employees to work until 65 for a full pension.

Although the 1,400 National Union of Teachers' members who work in councils, for example advisers, took part in the action, some school support staff expressed disappointment at the lack of support from teachers.

One head kept his school open by offering to give pupils a day of lessons on industrial action. Parkinson Lane primary, in Halifax, had been due to close as 10 support staff had intended to strike. Pupils performed Matchstick Girls, a play about a 19th-century strike by workers at the Bryant and May factory in London over poverty wages.

Christina McAnea, Unison head of education, said: "Today's closures show that you can't run a school with just teachers - it is a team effort, with teaching assistants, teachers, kitchen assistants, caretakers and dinner ladies all contributing to the education process.

"Teachers' pensions are protected and it is wrong and immoral that the low-paid staff in schools will be penalised in this way."

Double standards?

A teacher starting work today on an average annual salary of pound;30,000 who retired after 30 years' service at 60 could expect to receive a pension of pound;11,250 and an estimated lump sum of pound;33,750.

A full-time teaching assistant who also started work today would earn half the teacher's salary (an average pound;15,000 a year). If they also retired at 60 after 30 years' service they would receive a pension equal to half that of the teacher - pound;5,625 plus a lump sum of pound;16,875.

After the planned changes they would receive pound;3,750 in pension and a lump sum of pound;15,000.

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