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Don't force teachers to work until they drop

In the run-up to the one-day strike by UK public-sector workers on 30 June, there are plenty of media stories focusing on the disruption that will be caused by teachers withdrawing their labour.

Local TV news broadcasts inevitably tend to focus on the inconvenience to parents of small children, which may be understandable but inevitably tends to give an unsympathetic tilt to the coverage.

And this is music to the ears of a government wanting to paint striking public-sector workers as irresponsible and to show them as unrealistic in wanting to maintain decent pensions when most other people’s pensions are withering on the vine.

But I think there is something particular to be said in defence of the striking teachers that I haven’t noticed anyone else saying. First, without wishing at all to undermine the cause of other public-sector workers, many of whom are low-paid, I think it is worth noting what is special about the teachers’ case.

While we are all living longer, it is equally clear that some jobs are more suitable for people in their sixties than other jobs.

As a journalist and editor, who spends most of his time sat in front of a computer screen, it’s pretty clear that I will be better able to pursue my line of work than will, say, someone who has to labour on the roads or to stand up all day in a shop. And I’d argue that there is the same gulf in experience between university lecturers and teachers.

University lecturers spend as much time on their own research as they do with students (a great deal more, in many cases). Teachers, however, are required every day to perform in the classroom, often controlling groups of difficult children under extremely stressful conditions.

Nobody who has ever taught themselves, or who has a partner or friend who is a teacher, could question the energy demands in the everyday practice of the job, which far exceed any that I have to grapple with in my own profession.

Those levels of stress, over the long term, have tended to mean that most teachers seek  retirement in their late fifties. The fact that they opt not to wait for the full pension on offer after 40-years service does indicate that the teachers’ pension scheme was generous enough to allow for this. And perhaps it can legitimately be argued that they could pay a bigger percentage of their salary towards the costs of that decent provision for retirement.

But the changes proposed involve much more than an additional contribution. They envisage teachers working until the state retirement age before claiming their full pension, which is going up to 66 but will probably go up in stages to 70 in the years to come.

Can teachers really be expected to continue working to the same high levels of commitment, enthusiasm and physical energy in their sixties as they did in their thirties or their forties? I don’t think so. Can they continue to win the respect of hordes of sceptical, rebellious teenagers as easily when they are 50 years older as they could when they were 20 or 30 years older? Again, I think not.

But perhaps the more pertinent question of all to pose is – would parents really want their children to be taught by someone in their late sixties? It may be ageist to suggest it, but I seriously doubt it.

Somewhere in the debate over teachers’ pensions, this fundamental issue does need to be considered. Perhaps all teachers could somehow be given the option of moving into a more administrative and less frontline position as they approached their sixties, and could work in that desk job until they reached the full retirement age. But, as far as I am aware, no one – whether in the government or in the teaching unions – is even beginning to consider this kind of possibility.

All the same, I am grateful to the media debate that has played out over the past few days for at least one thing. It has opened my eyes to the fact that teachers working in private schools are also members of the state teachers’ pension scheme.

This seems to me completely outrageous. Teachers working in private schools have generally been trained at the public expense before opting to take refuge in privileged institutions where the more difficult students are weeded out, the facilities are incomparably better than in the state sector and class sizes are much smaller. Frankly, they have a much easier life.

Having taken the decision to opt out of participating in the state sector, why on earth should they benefit from the teachers’ pension scheme that is subsidized from the public purse?

Let the teachers who choose the private-school road sink or swim with the rest of us who are relying for our retirement on pathetic private-sector annuity rates. And put the money that’s saved by excluding them towards maintaining the pension scheme of those teachers who have kept the faith and served the crying public need.

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