The Teachers' Pension Scheme is dying. Slowly, but seemingly irreversibly, it is disappearing from independent schools.
Since 1 September last year, 147 schools have left the scheme, and more are following. For many teachers of a certain age (usually senior and middle managers, in their 40s or older), this is a sudden, unexpected rewriting of their futures.
They have worked hard, paying money into the scheme every month, planning for a time when they can live out their post-classroom lives in something approaching comfort. A rest well-earned after long days and disrupted weekends, paid for, literally and figuratively, over many years.
Now, governing bodies across the country are offering alternative models to replace the TPS. The reason often given is that this abandonment is a result of Covid-19, but the truth is that this trend started before the pandemic.
Teachers' Pension Scheme: Problems beyond private schools
If this was happening in the state sector, it would be dominating front pages, and Twitter would be filled with #ProtectOurTPS hashtags. Teachers would be in open conflict with the government about the withdrawal of something that has played a crucial role in attracting them to the profession and retaining them when working conditions might have otherwise convinced them to leave their jobs.
But because this is (currently) restricted to independent schools, with all the attendant associations of privilege, plus the fact that the numbers are comparatively small, little fuss is made.
However, it would be a mistake for colleagues in the state sector to think that, when the government begins to look at ways of paying for the pandemic, something as expensive as the TPS will be free from, at best, “restructuring” and, at worst, abolition.
Far from being privileged, many independent schools are existing on a financial precipice. For a rural prep school, the loss of even one full fee-paying student can be the difference between replacing a teacher or not. The image that certain media outlets like to foster – of a sector that is top-hatted and tailed – is as far away from reality as thinking that teaching is populated entirely by Miss Jean Brodies and Mr John Keatings. But such stereotypes persist because they fit into other self-serving and more politicised narratives.
Anecdotally, it seems that independent schools in the South East, far from being driven out of business by the pandemic, have actually seen an upturn in interest. And perhaps some of those parents turning up for open days are migrating from state schools that have struggled to provide the online resources more affluent schools have been able to offer. For such schools, the TPS is still secure for now.
But for other schools outside these conurbations of affluence, the pressures to make ends meet are intense and relentless. Under such circumstances, their governors have a responsibility to explore ways of minimising costs. And the TPS is, without doubt, a considerable cost.
But it is also a reward for commitment, and an affirmation of the intrinsic value that a school – and a society – places on the education of the young.
We are all interconnected – especially in schools
If an independent school faces criticism from its staff about fundamental changes in terms and conditions, such as withdrawing from the TPS, then it is a sign that that process has not been managed effectively.
Consultation – looking at whether the school should continue with the TPS, withdraw or offer some other alternatives – should not be perceived as a done deal, a drama with its denouement already co-authored in advance. A discussion involving all staff, which is genuinely open and transparent, is required if trust is to be retained. And if, at the end of that process, it is decided that the TPS should remain, then that should stand.
Because independent schools need the TPS to survive in the long term. It is a pull that ensures that teachers have a long-term commitment not just to a school but to the profession. That continuity is fundamental to teaching and learning at so many levels.
Such incentives bring in the best and the brightest graduates. To see it disappear will undoubtedly benefit the bank balances of some schools, saving some from making redundancies. The long-term loss will be more difficult to discern. But it will be there, in the teachers who don’t apply for a job, or in the shrinking field of strong candidates who do, or in those who decide to move on. The appeal of the job, that reserve of talent we all rely on, will shrink every year.
Each of these consequences has an impact on the students, but none shows up on the bottom line of a spreadsheet. Continuity, once broken, is difficult to restore.
Perhaps the familiar movement of staff – from state to independent – may stall, and even be reversed, but only for as long as the TPS is ring-fenced by the Treasury in the maintained sector. At the moment, that in itself looks more uncertain than ever.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are all interconnected, and nowhere more so than in schools.
The country is facing huge challenges if it is to begin to pay for the monumental borrowing undertaken to keep the economy afloat. Those who believe that there will not be interested eyes in Whitehall scanning the flurry of skirmishes in small, fee-paying schools, or who will not be speculating how this may be done at scale elsewhere and everywhere – in comprehensives, multi-academy trusts and grammar schools – are naïve.
Emails will have been exchanged, blue-sky meetings held online, position papers written. Small fires everywhere – mostly local, and mostly, for now, of little mainstream interest – but still smouldering and sparking. Watch them link up as the economic weather changes, and spread, inflamed by a need to balance the national books, not reward past endeavours. Quickly, a new conversation begins, and another new crisis has to be fought in a time of exhaustion.
Who will fight for those who have a secure job, when even to have a pension is seen by many as a privilege in itself? Perhaps such things are inevitable. But, so too, will be a further diminishing of an already beleaguered profession.
David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames