Education & Family

Heads vote for industrial action ballot over pensions

Primary school
Image caption The NAHT union is strongest in primary schools

Head teachers have voted overwhelmingly to stage a ballot on whether to strike over planned changes to their pensions.

The move was backed by 99.6% of 350 delegates at the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) at their annual conference in Brighton.

Thousands of schools in England and Wales could be affected in what would be the union's first national strike.

The government is talking to unions and urging them not to pre-empt the release of its firm plans on state pensions.

That announcement is due in the autumn.

A review led by Lord Hutton called for final salary schemes to be replaced by those based on the average salary in a career and said public sector workers should retire later, in line with a rising state pension age.

The vote came shortly before Education Secretary Michael Gove addressed delegates at the conference.

He told heads that reform to pensions was necessary but that in government he would be a "champion and voice for education professionals".

He said tough decisions needed to made but he wanted to work with heads to get the best possible outcome.

'Real betrayal'

The NAHT is the third teaching union to vote to ballot its members on pensions.

The National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers passed similar resolutions in the past few weeks.

The heads plan to ballot in the autumn and any action would quickly follow but the teachers are likely to ballot this term.

Like other public sector workers, heads and teachers will pay increased pensions contributions from next April.

They say changes being proposed will mean they will have to work longer for less money and that, on average, a head teacher will lose about £100,000 from their pension.

Gail Larkin, the head of Auriol Junior School, in Epsom, Surrey, said: "We are already struggling trying to recruit good people and if they are not going to be rewarded with a really good pension, then I don't think they will want to do the job."

Other delegates told the conference the pension proposals would be "disastrous".

NAHT member Brian McNutt said the government's approach was "disaster politics" and that Chancellor George Osborne was from the "Arthur Daley school of economics".

David Fann, a member of the NAHT's national executive, said: "We're going to pay more, work longer and get less."

And Jan Williams, the head of a school for children with autism, said making heads work longer would put their health at risk.

She said teaching was a physically demanding role.

"What happens when we are 65? We will be putting ourselves at risk of serious injury because we should be retired?" she said.

The government has said it is considering the Hutton review findings and will bring out firm proposals for all public sector pensions in the autumn.

It aims to set out "general principles" for changes to teachers' pensions in England and Wales by the end of June.

Teachers' pensions in Scotland and Northern Ireland are decided by the national administrations and no plans to change them have been announced.

'Unspoken contract'

Mr Gove's speech to the heads came a short while after their vote and he began by thanking them for "doing so much to give children the best start in life".

He said they embodied the "spirit of public service" and that he appreciated the "huge pressures" they faced and the long hours they worked.

But he said the government accepted the need to reform public sector pensions and difficult decisions would need to be taken.

However, he said there was an "unspoken contract" between the government and head teachers - who might have earned more with their skills in the private sector - and that their pensions were an acknowledgement and reward.

"In government, I will be a champion and voice for educational professions," he said, suggesting he would call on the Treasury to look at the specific situation of teachers and heads in making decisions on pensions .

Ahead of the vote Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT - which has members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - said heads felt angry and betrayed.

"They rightly see the proposals as an attack on the fair rewards from a lifetime of public service," he said.

"We are seeing a loss of about £100,000 from an average head teachers' pension. That feels like a real betrayal to the profession."

Afterwards, Mr Hobby said he had been encouraged by some of the comments Mr Gove had made.

"We welcomed the Secretary of State's engagement with the issues we have been fighting for - from Sats to pensions to salaries," he said.

"He walked into a heated debate on pensions but responded well."

The NAHT is strongest in primary schools - where it says it represents 85% of heads in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It says it represents 40% of secondary heads.

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