(Or DVLA instructor, Jobcentre clerk or college lecturer – unless you’re a millionaire cabinet minister)

30/06/11 30th June PCS & UNISON early morning pickets and protests Birmingham city centre
PCS and UNISON early morning pickets and protests, Birmingham city centre. Photo: Geoff Dexter

As the 1999 Teacher Training Agency advertising campaign suggested, nobody forgets a good teacher. For me, all eight teachers I knew at Ewing School fell in to that category and had a profound influence on myself. One of them had a penchant for walking and travelling great distances, something I enjoy doing myself. It is thanks to the supportive environment there where I started appreciating the countryside beyond my bedroom window or the confines of a GMT standard double decker. In fact, my enthusiasm for the latter was intensified by trips to local attractions such as the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. Not to mention the fact that my first classroom (ironically known as the First Group [sic]) had a grandstand view of the local bus scene (it overlooked the Palatine Road bus terminus).

Prior to placing ticks or crosses on my exercise books, they studied hard en route to West Didsbury. Their work was done with a degree of empathy, servitude, empowerment and support between pupil and parent, never the fast buck. Their ‘thrill’ lay in the pupil being well prepared for life as an upstanding member of community, not just on leaving primary school, but also be secondary school, university and the work environment; anathema to ‘screw you Jack’ and oneupmanship. That end result would come not only en route to secondary school but at graduation days up and down the country or in the corridors of power.

At the end of all this, you should expect the teacher to be rewarded handsomely by retirement age. Alas not so. The current pension level is far from being ‘gold-plated’ as some commentators on the right-wing of politics concur. The average pension of £7,500 per annum may seem a modest sum now, but, if you’re starting out as a teacher and expected to work for 20 years, you will find that the modest £7,500 per annum of 2011 will become the derisory sum of £7,500 per annum by 2031. Given the rate of inflation, £7,500 per year wouldn’t be enough to pay for 52 Observers and 313 Guardians. Nor would that be enough to pay for a NPower League Two (Division Four for us old heads) season ticket by then.

And the powers that be wish to cut that further, forcing teachers and other public sector employees to work till 68…

No government and private enterprise should have the right to meddle with its workers’ pensions. If you can cast your mind back to 1991, a certain Czech born publishing magnate did something similar to the employees of a national newspaper. Firstly, the pension proposals advocate linking future sums to the Consumer Prices Index (which is lower than the Retail Price Index, and a formulae used for calculating Jobseekers’ Allowance benefit rates since the 07 October 1996). Secondly, the final sum will be based on average earnings. Instead of having your final pension based on your 2031 salary, it would be based on average earnings. If you started this year and retired 20 years from now, the final sum would be frozen at the 2021 rate. That figure would be applicable if he or she had worked the same set of hours throughout.

This has a more profound affect on female employees. Her average earnings could be skewed by maternity leave, therefore meaning a more derisory pension than her male counterpart. This is also true of all part time employees, or any employee forced to reduce their hours due to local government cutbacks (i.e. switching to part time or volunteer).

So you thought all this was bad enough…

Just to put the cherry on it all, wannabe teachers, Jobcentre clerks and DVLA instructors would be treated to a later retirement age of 68. Plus they would have to fork out another 3% from there wage. This is tantamount to Maxwellian levels of pension theft and equals a pay cut but name. In other words, it’s a deferred pay cut. The £400 million lost in 1991 by the said fellow would be a mere drop in the ocean.

The average public sector workers’ pension (as seen on the front page of today’s Independent) and the conditions to earn that pension in later years is as far removed from gold plated as a diamondique necklace. That is when compared with the payoff which the current cabinet may receive. On top of directorships, share options and countless other perks far removed from reality.

Being a Jobcentre clerk, DVLA instructor, teacher or college lecturer isn’t the sort of profession where you could be expected to work till 68, given the high pressure nature. Teachers are worn down by the permanent revolution of education reform as contrasting ideologies try to impose their mark on ‘reform’. Whereas one prefers emphasis on one-to-one teaching for pupils with learning difficulties, another advocates compulsory 1950s style school uniforms and de-unionised Free Schools ran by parental clique or corporation instead of governors. Ditto the above with welfare legislation and higher education funding.

I’ve known some teachers who have had to retire from the profession early, due to health reasons. Some teachers may never reach 68, let alone retire by then – especially if you were born in Manchester or Glasgow. Perhaps the proposals may have realised this in the sick sense. They must have thought “teaching’s a stressful job, let’s have a retirement age which they are unlikely to reach, so we can squander their pensions”.

Then there’s the fallacy that the reforms are necessary due to increased life expectancy. Wrong, wrong, wrong, it is all about saving a few bob for UK plc to pay for the deficit whilst seeing entire swathes of Manchester and Glasgow die before retirement age. Life expectancy has increased in the last 15 years due to improved health information and affluence. Central to this is also the NHS. The butchery of our NHS could see life expectancy reverse in Sighthill and West Gorton with the gap between persons in Kensington and Chelsea and Higher Blackley widen. Therefore, no NHS in its pre-ConDem form plus higher retirement age equals lower pensions bill and a more divided society.

It may be simplistic to think of today’s strike as a pensions issue. Looking at the bigger picture, it is one part of an ideological assault of the public sector. Today’s strikers have not only been worn down by these proposals. They have faced below inflation pay rises up to 2010 and a pay freeze (or for low waged employees a derisory flat rate).

My sister became a teacher in 2007, following four years at university with a four-figure debt on her back. New entrants to the profession already have the burden of student tuition fees to pay for without any additional cost of living expenses. After being penalised for bettering herself, more of the same for a bit extra towards her old age may follow suit. By 2016 (when five figure student debts become commonplace), there may be fewer takers for the public sector pension scheme (if there is a public sector by then), leading many to a destitute old age.

The public sector workers have every right to complain and withdraw their labour vociferously. They’ve been trodden on far enough, and these proposals have pushed them towards the edge. Amid the temporary rage of a parent not being able to take their child to school, the government’s proposal’s have far-reaching and more visceral implications for society at large than a day off at school.

The amount of persons on strike today was equivalent to the population of Leeds. This is just the beginning: just wait till an equivalent number to the population of Greater Manchester do the same.

Will they listen? They’ve got to, but don’t hold your breath.

S.V., 30 June 2011.

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