Guest Comment: Teachers' pensions - view from a school governor

A little- known fact is that, outside the day job, I’m a school governor. Not that my two worlds of pensions and schools collide very often – until now that is.

As reported recently in the pensions press, the survival of some state schools, colleges, universities and independent schools is threatened by the £1.1bn rise in the employers’ contribution to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme from September 2019.

Unusually, this very fact has become an agenda item for the governing body of which I’m a member. The strange thing though is despite my being able to explain (in some detail) why the cost of teachers’ pensions is increasing, the dilemma of how they are funded is not one I can easily resolve.

We all know about schools, right? We all went there, perhaps have seen our children through the education system, so we all have a view about teachers. Most of us can identify that one (or maybe more than one) teacher who really made a difference – the one who inspired us, who set us on our future path. Teachers, I don’t need to tell you, have a real power and influence on our young people, who they are and who they might be in the future. Good teachers build the future aspirations of the next generation – the real difference to our continued economic success.

Balance this then with the fact that teachers are on the decline and are becoming increasingly stretched. Government figures show that the number of staff in secondary schools fell by around 15,000 between 2014/15 and 2016/17. This, I believe, is in large part due to the need of governing bodies to ‘balance budgets’, which ultimately means fewer, larger classes, less choice of subjects as pupils specialise, and fewer support staff for pupils with special needs. The teaching profession is really creaking under the pressure of continually increasing expectations coupled with squeezed budgets, and now there’s the added cost of increased contributions to teachers’ pensions.

I have spent a great deal of my life communicating pensions change – telling members about the increased cost of funding their pension arrangements, but this is a different equation. Companies seek to maximise profit and keeping their costs down is part of that. Who decides whether it’s jobs or pensions for teachers? Frankly, from where I’m sitting it’s an impossible situation, a conundrum we can’t solve. If we value teachers enough to want them to retain their valuable DB benefits, who pays? If we, as governors can’t afford the increased contribution, what are our choices?

I suspect that this is a conundrum across the whole of the public sector. Many of the remaining open DB schemes in the UK are there – in the NHS, the Civil Service, the police as well as in teaching. It’s about time we had an open and frank conversation about the impact on our economy of continuing to fund public sector DB pensions. Especially as those are the very people who make such a difference to all of our lives.

Until then, I’m back to my personal dilemma, how to ‘balance the books’ of one school.

AHC's Karen Partridge

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