Pensions impasse pushes teacher strike closer

By Alex Stevenson

Leading teaching union figures have written off negotiations with government officials, increasing the chances of strike action.

A handful of meetings remain scheduled but union bosses are already preparing for rolling industrial action, which school managers fear could cause huge disruption across England and Wales.

The Department for Education (DfE) said the government was committed to “working openly and constructively with unions”. But the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) are already balloting for discontinuous strike action which, if a deal is not reached, will begin with a one-day strike on June 30th.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower told politics.co.uk that it was “perfectly clear” that officials were not “engaged fully on a day-to-day basis” with unions.

“We don’t believe there is any real sense these are good faith negotiations, because they already changed the basis of indexation in April – even though we were still in negotiations about it,” she said.

“Quite apart from all of these reports that say the Treasury can’t stand this up, the fact is they haven’t done the valuation of the scheme.”

Teachers are angry that the government plans to increase their pension contributions from 6.4% to 9.5%.

Under the terms of a 2007 ‘cap and share’ arrangement teachers agreed to accept increased pensions payments only if pensions became unaffordable through a proper valuation.

Union leaders claim the Treasury has not provided evidence the hike in contributions is necessary. A public accounts committee report last month appeared to back their stance up, criticising the government for not producing evidence of the need for the pensions hike.

But Conservative MP Graham Stuart, chair of the Commons’ education committee, told politics.co.uk: “You’d need to do a TUC registered trade union before you can begin to suggest that the government wasn’t able to demonstrate a black hole in the public finances.

“Most people in the private sector would give their right arm to be able to pay 3.5% in order to have access to a guaranteed final salary pension scheme.

“Most people in this country have no access to any such scheme whatsoever and it is the rest of the country along with teachers who are paying for it.”

Chancellor George Osborne is thought to be seeking to announce the result of the talks within the next fortnight, politics.co.uk understands.

Teachers are already bruised by a two-year pay freeze and the switching of their pensions indexing from retail price index (RPI) to consumer price index (CPI) inflation – changes which the unions claim could lead to a real-terms pay cut of 12%.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said he had already begun receiving letters from retirees complaining about the reduction the switch to CPI had caused.

He said Ms Blower’s suspicion that ministers were not entering talks “in good faith” was correct, because the government had firmly committed to the contributions increase without sitting down to discuss the “basic affordability” of the pension scheme.

A Treasury spokesperson said: “The government wants public service pensions to remain among the very best available.

“But as former work and pensions secretary Lord Hutton’s independent report made clear, current pensions are unsustainable, with the average 60-year-old now living ten years longer than they did in the 1970s.”

The stalled talks mean that an announcement about strike action could quickly follow the end of balloting on June 14th.

Although the NUT is only threatening one day of strike action, Ms Blower made clear further one-off strike days could take place.

“A single one-day strike wouldn’t have much impact – but a series of discontinuous actions could end up adding up,” Mr Hobby commented.

“The effect will magnify quite quickly and probably be fairly disruptive.”

Ms Blower said no public examinations would be affected by a strike at the end of the summer term.

But Mr Stuart warned that children’s education would suffer nonetheless.

“With the stake of the nation, the state of the economy and the state of most people’s pensions options, this is not the time to be sabre-rattling about strike action unless employers are shown to have acted unreasonably,” he added.

“Therefore, it’s inappropriate for the NUT to have been threatening strike action even as talks are going on. It’s as if their leadership wants industrial action which hurts the education of children and damages the finances of frontline staff.”

A DfE spokesperson said that Lord Hutton’s report acknowledged the need for “flexibility to account of specific workforce circumstances” – like the teaching workforce.

He added: “But we are clear that a strike by teachers will achieve just one thing: disruption to pupils’ learning. The wellbeing and safety of pupils must remain paramount.”