A letter to myself on retirement from teaching

  • A letter to myself on retirement from teaching

Is it really feasible to expect teachers to remain in the classroom until they’re nearly 70?

2037! The UK has finally solved the Brexit riddle – who’d have thought things would have changed so dramatically and so much for the better under prime minister Danny Dyer? 68 has become the new retirement age. Hurrah – teaching bottom set English on wet Wednesdays until we’re pushing 70 is what we came into teaching for!

When I became a teacher, Wham! were chart toppers, Back to the Future was on at the movies and I fondly thought I’d be able to retire early. The idea of spending 40 years at the chalkface seemed ludicrous – and then austerity became the political choice and I could almost see the villainous bankers and financiers riding off with my pension, laughing like Bond villains.

I was actually happy to carry on until 68, but let’s be frank: you can talk all you like about the loneliness of command, the stress of the job and the fact that heads are dynamic and inspirational change leaders, but ultimately we’re well-paid paper shufflers who make the odd tough decision, do assembly once a week, berate naughty boys and butter up the parents.

But if later retirement is not too onerous for heads, what about class teachers and TAs who face hundreds of mentally and physically demanding interactions with individual children each and every day? How do you carry on doing that when everything aches? How do you act full of vim and vigour when your Tena pants pinch and your hearing aid screeches every time you walk in front of the interactive board? Yes, I know, 68 is the new 58 – but, let me tell you, 58 wasn’t so hot either.

As teachers were forced to work on, everyone became top of scale and, as budgets didn’t increase to reflect this, they ended up teaching classes of 40-plus children. This was exacerbated by the supply of NQTs drying up because they got fed up waiting for the wrinklies to pop their clogs. So, having screwed millennials by inflating house prices, the baby boomers also bed-blocked their career progression. Some unscrupulous, ageist heads (and those who were just desperate to get some youthful new ideas back in the class) were always trying to get shot of the crusties because they were costly and, sometimes, just too worn out to cut the classroom mustard any more. Some teachers jacked it in, not because they had built up enough pension to keep them in prosecco for life, but because they were too bloody knackered to teach by then.

Even before the retirement age was ratcheted upwards, most teachers never made it to 65 in the first place and would instead retire at 60 or earlier, taking what’s called an ‘actuarially reduced pension’ – ie, much less lolly. Remember, the original pension age of 65 for men was chosen because most working class men would only get to draw it for a few years before pegging out, if they claimed it at all. And now, ironically, with ever-increasing growth in life expectancy levelling off or even falling, in large parts of the country 68 may well turn out to be longer than healthy life expectancy. Sweatshop Britain now has the highest retirement age of any advanced industrial nation. There are many people who are in good health in their 60s and 70s who don’t want to retire, but for those who do, they will have to do so on a reduced pension – which was the government’s whole strategy. Pushing the retirement age towards 70 is not based on people living longer: it’s a cynical move to make many teachers and low-paid TAs either wait longer for their pension, or take a considerable cut to their retirement income if they physically or mentally can’t do it anymore. Depending on where you view it from, this was either a much-needed balancing of the books or a callous kick in the head for dedicated public servants. But teachers had the last laugh: the number of expensive death-in-service grants went up – that showed ‘em!

Kevin Harcombe is a Teaching Awards winner and headteacher at Redlands Primary School, Fareham.

Pie Corbett