Unions on the brink of pensions deal

Negotiations on track to deliver a compromise both sides can tolerate

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As far as the education unions were concerned, asking teachers to pay more into their pensions, receive less and work longer was simply not acceptable. But, ahead of the national strike on 30 November, education secretary Michael Gove was adamant there was "no magic pot of gold we can plunder". The offer already on the table was, it seemed, as good as it was going to get.

However, despite stubbornness on both sides - not to mention the different stances of rival union leaders - the foundations of a new deal on pensions have somehow been thrashed out.

"It went down to the last minute," said Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT. "Things kept being offered and then withdrawn by the Treasury; that got people absolutely furious."

But by 7pm on Monday, after more than 20 hours of painfully protracted negotiations over three days, a model scheme, which was at least potentially viable to all parties, had been finalised.

Two of the key changes proposed by the Government - moving from a final- salary scheme to the less lucrative career-average and linking retirement age to the national pension age, eventually rising to 68 - are still in place. But considerable concessions have been won by the unions. Teachers who retire between the ages of 65 and 68 will see less of a reduction in their pension than had originally been envisaged: for each year of retirement before the state pension age, their income would drop by around 3 per cent, as opposed to 5 per cent under the previous proposal.

"Ideally, we wanted teachers to be able to go at 65 with hardly any reduction (in the value of their pensions), but the fact we have got it down is a good achievement for us," said Martin Freedman, head of pay, conditions and pensions at teaching union ATL.

In addition, the accrual rate - the rate at which pensions increase in value - would be improved to 157th, better than the current 160th rate. This would partially offset the switch to a career-average scheme; some teachers, said Mr Freedman, could even end up with a better deal. "If you are not promoted and stay as a career teacher . you might actually get an improvement in your pension."

Ministers also agreed that teachers at independent schools would be able to remain in the teachers' pension scheme, allaying another of the unions' major concerns.

"It's been an incredibly difficult period of negotiation," said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). "There have been constant changes from the Treasury, who have been moving the goalposts the whole time . But we now have a set of proposals that are certainly closer to what we wanted."

The sense of relief was shared by officials at the Department for Education. "We've listened carefully to the unions' arguments and we've struck the right balance, addressing teachers' concerns without putting any new money on the table," a spokesman said.

But there is still some way to go before the deal is formally adopted. Half of the unions represented at talks - the ASCL, ATL, the NAHT and Voice - signed a "heads of agreement", promising to consult their executives on the deal. The other four unions - the NASUWT, the NUT, the University and College Union and the Welsh teachers' union UCAC - are awaiting further details before they make any decisions.

"The NASUWT . has reserved its position, insisting on the need for further information to be provided, including on the equalities impact of the Government's proposed reforms to the pension scheme," NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said.

Her view was shared by NUT general secretary Christine Blower. "We reserved our position due to lack of progress, but also the lack of documentation in certain critical areas," she said. The two biggest unions will hold meetings of their executives in January before deciding how to proceed.

Even if all the unions sign up, there is much work still to be done. They will still have to consult with their members in January, and this is before detailed discussions on the proposed increases in teachers' contributions - one of their biggest concerns - have even started.

Neither ministers nor general secretaries will be entirely happy with the compromise on offer; both have conceded more ground than they would have liked to. But if they can avoid the political damage that would have been caused by the deal being forcibly imposed - not to mention the devastating consequences of further national strikes - then they will at least have managed to make the best of a bad situation.


Seven hours in pensions negotiations today. Progress, but no end in sight yet. Fuelled solely by crisps and Diet Coke . Tweet by NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby on Monday afternoon

Latest pension proposals:

157th - Accrual rate, an improvement on the previous rate of 160th

68 - Retirement age, rising from the current age of 65

Switch from final-salary to career-average scheme

Teachers working in independent schools will remain in the teachers' pension scheme

Teachers due to retire by April 2022 will be protected from changes; teachers due to retire by October 2025 will be partially protected.

Origional headline: Still no consensus, but unions teeter on the brink of pensions deal

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