Until Vivian Powell, a primary music teacher in London, discovered that five and a half years were missing from her service record, she was one of the many teachers who wrongly assumed all was well with their pensions. She has since spent three years trying to persuade Camden and Hackney borough councils to forward the correct details to Teachers' Pensions.
Growing numbers of teachers are finding errors in their records that could wipe thousands of pounds off the value of their benefits. Teaching unions are urging members to hang on to their payslips and check their service records regularly if they want to be sure of getting what they're entitled to. "You have to make such a nuisance of yourself to get anything done," says Mrs Powell, who has received support and advice from her union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "There is terrible incompetence and it's a marathon task to get it put right."
Mrs Powell stumbled on the error when she asked for a statement from Teachers' Pensions in March 1999. Like many women, she has done a lot of part-time teaching and she wanted to see what her final pension might amount to. To her horror, she found that none of her service since 1994 had been credited.
Camden has now finally sent off a corrected record, but Hackney has failed to submit Mrs Powell's full details. The ATL says it has dealt with an increasing number of cases in which whole years of service have simply disappeared, unaccounted for in the records passed on by employers to Teachers' Pensions. The union says part-time and supply teachers are most at risk of mistakes because of their irregular working patterns, followed by teachers working in unitary authorities or former grant-maintained schools.
"We have had many problems with GM schools that didn't understand what they were taking on when they assumed responsibility for pension contributions and service records," says Marion Bird, deputy head of pensions at the ATL. One well-known former grant-maintained school in London turned down a training session on pensions administration, only to forward 18 months'
worth of additional voluntary contributions to Teachers' Pensions instead of the Prudential, the company that administers the AVC schee S e schools have put the bursar or a deputy head in charge, or contracted out payroll and pensions to a private company which has made a mess of affairs, according to Elaine Goswell, assistant secretary at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. Several of the new unitary authorities also lack the necessary pensions know-how. "When one large authority splits into several small ones, there is not enough expertise to go round, and some are struggling," says Marion Bird.
"We strongly advise teachers to keep their payslips. If anything goes wrong, they will need evidence of what they have paid," suggests Elaine Goswell.
x teachers at a former grant-maintained school in a south coast unitary authority recently discovered large gaps in their service records. One found out that five years of her service had vanished only when she requested her details from Teachers' Pensions because she was planning to step down. "What has made me furious is the time and energy it takes to sort it all out. I've had to ask for my records from two LEAs, and after five months I've made little progress," she says.
The problem of faulty records is compounded by employers not sending service details to Teachers' Pensions; 6 per cent of teachers, around 30,000, do not have up-to-date service records. Some will have great difficulty calculating their pension entitlements if they are trying to decide whether to take early retirement or to step down to a post with less responsibility.
One of the reasons local education authorities are slow to forward records is that they have had to take back responsibility for payrolls and pensions from many former grant-maintained schools, says the ATL.
Unfortunately, mistakes in service records are not the only problem. Alison Jones, a family literacy co-ordinator in Oldham, is appealing for redress to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, after a pensions mix-up that has cost her at least pound;1,500.
Mrs Jones's problem arose when she changed jobs in September 1998 from a basic skills lecturer, employed by Oldham council, to a family literacy co-ordinator, employed by Oldham education authority. Mrs Jones had paid in to the local government pensions scheme when she was a lecturer, and on taking up her new post was assured she could stay in the scheme.
By chance, in September 2000, she discovered that she was supposed to have switched to the Teachers' Pensions scheme, and that the extra 9 per cent of her salary she had been paying as a top-up would have to be returned - minus almost pound;1,300 in tax.
In fact, the local government scheme does allow top-up years to be transferred to Teachers' Pensions. But because of the strict tax rules that apply to pensions, Mrs Jones is unable to reclaim the tax to reinvest in her pension. So far, she has written around 60 letters to six organisations to try to sort out the muddle. Mrs Jones feels particularly let down, as she has thought carefully about her pension, topping it up to compensate for time out raising her family and for the period when, as a part-time FE lecturer, she was not allowed to join an occupational scheme.
"Like many other people, I trusted what I saw on my payslip, which was a huge mistake," she says. "I assumed it was going to the right place and boosting my benefits. What is of most concern is that this could have gone on until I retired, as I only discovered the mistake by chance."
Protect your pension
* Keep all your payslips and copies of any correspondence about your pension. You will need documentary evidence if anything goes wrong.
* Anyone changing jobs or working hours, considering early retirement or planning to step down should check pensions and service records. Write to Teachers' Pensions, Mowden Hall, Darlington DL3 9EE, and ask for your service record, quoting your teacher's reference number. You are entitled to request a service record once a year. It will only show your contributions up to the end of the previous tax year but one, as it takes more than a year for employers' returns to be submitted and checked.
* Anyone who is 55 or over can check their service record on the internet at the TP website: www.teacherspensions.co.uk.
* If you spot any mistakes, contact your union for help. The unions'
pensions departments are the experts on the TP scheme, and they have good contacts with TP and the Prudential.
* You can also get free advice from the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service, 11 Belgrave Road, London SW1V 1RB. Tel: 08456 012923.