Last Friday, Ballard School invited its local MP, Mr Desmond Swayne, to come and hear the concerns of staff over the Government’s proposed changes to the teachers’ pension scheme. Teachers and bursars from two other local schools (Hordle Walhampton and Durlston Court) were also invited.
To set the scene: firstly, a few little nuggets about Desmond Swayne:-
- Mr Swayne was a teacher of Economics from 1980 until 1987, firstly at Charterhouse School (founded in 1611), then at Wrekin College (founded in 1880).
- He then became a manager of “risk-management systems” at RBS, a post he held until 1996.
- Mr Swayne is an ex-parent of Ballard School – his two girls were at the school until a few years ago.
- Until last year, he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition (16 Dec 2005 to 11 May 2010) [i.e. David Cameron]. He has continued to hold the post as PPS to the Prime Minister since the Election of 2010. This role is characterised as being the “eyes and ears” of the PM in the House, and reporting back to him colleagues’ observations, requests and complaints.
- A Major in the Territorial Army (with 5 months’ experience in Iraq in 2003), he has held posts including a Shadow Defence portfolio and the role of Senior Opposition Whip.
- He was first returned to the House of Commons as MP for New Forest West in 1997 following unsuccessful attempts in Pontypridd in 1987 and West Bromwich in 1992. He has held the seat, with a slightly increased majority, at each General Election since then.
- A fellow Tory MP – and former frontbencher – is quoted on Mr Swayne’s “Guardian” profile as saying that “The idea that Desmond Swayne might have his finger on the nuclear trigger is frankly terrifying.” [http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/person/5075/desmond-swayne]
And now, a few details about Ballard School’s staff: we are, it might be said, a fairly atypical bunch of private school teachers: quite a few of us, especially the more recent appointees, have experience in the State sector before moving to Ballard. We are not a particularly militant group – there is no NUT rep, for example (although I will admit to membership of that union – more on that later!). The meeting was organised after a pair of ATL members attended a meeting of their union on the impending changes to the teachers’ pension structure. To be honest, I have no idea of the relative proportion of Ballard teachers who are members of ATL, NASUWT, NUT, etc., or indeed who are not a member of a union at all. (But is that even relevant?)
The meeting opened with a brief introduction from our Headteacher, Alastair Reid – who informed us that he and Mr Swayne had, incredibly enough, been at prep school together – who thanked Mr Swayne for giving up his time to come and listen to our concerns. The Head of ICT and recently-appointed Deputy Director of Learning and Teaching, James Blake, then outlined the areas of concern to which we wished to draw Mr Swayne’s (and the Government’s) attention; in a nutshell, the fact that teachers are going to be
- paying increased contributions
- working substantially longer
- receiving a lot less at the end of their careers
It was then time for Mr Swayne to “take to the stage”, and to make the Government’s case, before taking comments and questions. I use the term advisedly – this was a real performance!
Mr Swayne began by setting the overall economic scene requiring the Government to revisit ground covered in the previous adjustments to the TPS (which took effect on 1st January 2007).
He explained that the TPS should never have been perceived as “the whole solution” to an individual teacher’s pension requirements – that our real focus should always have been – and should definitely now be – “what you should do for yourselves”. He explained that there were “no savings, no fund” set aside to cover the requirements of an ageing population. In the recent past, 4 current teachers’ contributions had been paying for 1 retired teacher’s pension: he claimed that the ratio is now 1:1. I will be very interested to examine this claim in greater detail.
He worshiped at the altar of the Market, by putting forward the notion that, in order to compensate for dropping pensions, schools would simply pay higher wages to their staff to make up for the shortfall. (From the huge overflowing national coffers that are helping us navigate our way through the recessionary landscape without recourse to 20+% cuts to public spending? Um…hang on a minute…)
He continued by emphasising the widely-held view that public sector pensions – and the TPS in particular – are streets ahead of private sector ones. Again, at this point I remembered reading blogposts in the recent past that refute this claim – and will be exploring it.
He went on to attempt to fuel our guilty consciences at benefiting from this perk by asking us to feel the pain of The Poor Taxpayer (cue the first whispers from increasingly irritated “audience” members that we ARE taxpayers!). Mr Swayne was warming to the task, and to the sound of his own voice, by now: at this point he made the rather wonderfully-disingenuous remark that, in contrast to private sector workers, at least we would “know from the start what we would get at the end”(!). What: like what we thought we knew a year ago? Cue more disgruntled chuntering and note-taking, ready for the debate to follow…
It was at this point that he prefaced a sentence with the comment that “the only thing that will come out of this process that you will like, will be (something or other – I forgot to note that bit down, to be honest)… At which point my internal response – which I externalised later! – was “so what about the negotiation and consultation process we have been told so much about, then?” (Is this to be another Lansley-style “Listening Process”?)
And so it was finally time for questions. And, you never know – even some answers?
This was almost as intriguing, from the point-of-view of “watching a performer”, as the monologue which preceded it!
The most entertaining segment was what can only really be described as a florid-faced diatribe assaulting the “mores” of teachers and their unions, claiming, in more or less so many words, that we are responsible for the negative impacts to the education system- and, by extension, the ills of the nation for the last 40 years or so! When asked how else teachers were recommended to make their concerns heard at a national level, with the kind of resonance required in order to make them heard at governmental level, we were encouraged to “march and so on” to our hearts content, as long as we don’t even consider strike action. It was pointed out to Mr Swayne that, never in the entire history of the ATL has a ballot been help even to CONSIDER balloting for strike action… but it was clear that he felt that even considering a strike was beyond the pale.
[I must confess that, at this point, I made the point that it might appear a little rich, coming from a member of a body whose “mores” have not exactly been held in the highest of regards over the last couple of years, to criticise the moral standing of the national teaching body. I must, however, remark that there is no implication whatsoever that Mr Swayne’s expense claims have been anything other than entirely proper.]
Feelings were starting to run slightly high, with staff members debating whether teachers retiring at the age of 66 or ultimately 68, in years to come, would be in a fit state to cope with the kind of classroom scenarios that some colleagues must face on a daily basis. Mr Swayne was invited to shadow our Head of MFL’s husband in his school in Southampton – a pretty challenging environment for a 30-something year-old, let alone a near-retiree, and I dare say not what he may have been used to in his 7-year teaching career at Charterhouse and Wrekin College… He appeared to (a) accept the offer and then (b) glibly express his expectation that it would not happen. (He doesn’t know the Head of MFL like I do!) He also made the assertion that, statistically-speaking, teachers are only behind parish priests in terms of longevity post-retirement – another “fact” which I will be exploring over half-term!
Colleagues now expressed the following concerns: firstly, that recruitment of quality graduates (and others) to an already struggling profession will drop as a result of the TPS proposals; secondly, that colleagues who have already been in the profession for some time may lose out, depending upon how the averaging formulae used to work out final sums are calculated. (How will a teacher who started on, say, £7,000, be rewarded, ultimately?)
Mr Swayne kept what was, in my opinion at any rate, arguably his best point for the last: other professions will also be forced into making adjustments to their pension schemes, thanks to the demographic picture across the country. And so “if you leave the profession, you will be leaping out of the frying-pan into the fire.” He suggested instead that we look forward to a “long and impecunious retirement”…
Thanks for that! We all left to begin a well-earned half-term, with plenty to mull over…and, in my case, to schedule an appointment with my financial adviser!
[This is very much a personal “take” on the events of last Friday, with my own slant on the debate. I apologise if I have left anything of substance out, and if I have over-emphasised elements which do not deserve it, in your view.]