Teaching Unions, amongst others, from south of the border have been understandably exercised about these issues. The NUT response was perhaps most predictable as a ‘traditional’ union (indeed we hear that the discussion at their conference which led to the agreement to ballot members on strike action was not a particularly heated affair as they expect nothing less from the Conservative led coalition!) However, two much more moderate unions in ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) and NAHT (National Association of Head Teachers) were much more animated in their discussion of the Government’s plans. Neither of these unions has ever been on strike. Over the years, each gained considerable increases in membership during past strikes by other unions. This in itself demonstrates very clearly the strength of feeling and opposition to these proposals.
At the NAHT conference at the end of April, delegates were told that head teachers could face an increase in pension contributions of 53% or more – they stated that such an increase in contributions equates to around £140 a month or £1680 a year for an average head teacher. Add to that the plan to increase pension age to 66, 67 or even older and the proposal to introduce career average pensions – which will have most impact on the pension of promoted post holders. It is little wonder that they voted overwhelmingly in support of a ballot on industrial action up to and including strike action. Despite assurances from the Government that accrued benefits would be preserved, NAHT members were appalled by the proposals and the effect they would have on current and future generations of teachers and school leaders.
Some important points were made in the NAHT debate. The first was that in special schools, where both the physical and emotional demands on teachers can be considerable and there can be more regular need to physically restrain pupils than in mainstream establishments, people begin to get ‘creaky’ long before the current retirement age. It was considered unreasonable to expect staff to continue into their mid to late sixties in such roles. The second was that there is already enough difficulty recruiting school leaders – shrinking pay-packets, increasing the length of careers and diminishing the value of pensions were not seen as a good way to help the situation. The third was that statistics clearly show that each year worked after the age of sixty has a considerable effect on longevity. This means that while pensionable age is increasing because of increased life expectancy, a consequence of this action may actually be to reduce life expectancy. Further, while teachers would be still be able to preserve their health and length of retirement by taking an actuarially reduced pension at fifty-five it would come with a hefty 43% actuarial reduction!
It is against this backdrop that the UK Government is being encouraged to think again about its cost saving measures for pensions. Michael Gove MP, Westminster Secretary of State for Education, has tried to reassure the education sector that he will fight their corner in discussions with the Treasury and that he will listen and negotiate with unions. Neither ATL nor NAHT delegates seemed particularly reassured.
If these proposals go ahead in England then there will be incredible pressure on Scottish Politicians to follow suit. It would only be at that point that there would be a legitimate possibility of strike action in Scotland (since there must be a dispute for strike action to be lawful). If the UK Government goes ahead and the Scottish Government plans to take similar action it would be very surprising if Scottish Unions, including AHDS – which has never balloted its members on strike action, let alone walked out – did not take a similarly resolute stand against plans to increase teachers’ pension contributions and to make people work longer for smaller pensions.
How the UK Government reacts to the united front being presented by unions in England will be interesting to watch and will, to a large degree, dictate the possibility of action here in Scotland. Hopefully the UK Government will listen to the united voice of our colleagues south of the border. They certainly have our support.