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Katherine Donnelly: Lessons learnt as limits set on breaks

TEACHER! Teacher! What's the difference between Oireachtas leave of absence and any other career break for teachers? A fat pension!

Taoiseach-in-waiting Enda Kenny has shown just how lucrative the leave-of-absence scheme for teachers-turned-TDs or senators can be.

After less than five years in the classroom, he is entitled to collect a lump sum of €100,000 and an annual pension of €30,000, based on a career he left behind 37 years ago.

This week, in the eye of the election storm, he announced he is forgoing that right, but then he will have his TD's, minister's and (almost certainly) Taoiseach's pension to soften the blow.

The extraordinarily generous scheme has allowed teachers to stay in the Dail or Seanad, and to clock up a full pension entitlement for their previous career at little cost: the 6.5pc contribution from their teacher's salary is a fraction of the value of the final payout.

Teachers can take career breaks or a leave of absence for a variety of reasons, such as working abroad, but nothing compares to the Oireachtas leave scheme for generosity.

Teachers on other approved absences pay a higher pension contribution than their Dail colleagues to preserve their pension and such breaks have usually been subject to a five-year limit. Teachers-turned-TDs or senators are replaced in the school on a temporary basis and the stand-in teacher is paid out of their salary.

There has been a long tradition of teachers going into politics and the teacher union leaders used their considerable clout to ensure they enjoyed attractive terms and conditions. It is underpinned by a guarantee they can return to their job at any time and, once the post is open for them, they may continue to build pension rights.

Some resigned from teaching relatively early in their political career, giving up all entitlements.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin hasn't yet resigned his post, but he has told the Department of Education he wants to receive "no credits at all" for his teaching pension in the 20-plus years since he left his position.

Similarly, Mary Hanafin has not been accruing teaching pension rights since becoming a minister in 2000, but will accept an €11,500-a-year pension relating to the 17 years she spent in a classroom. Minister Pat Carey took a pension lump sum of €120,000 in recent years, after 30 years of teaching.

But this all changes after this week's election, as the Department of Education has introduced a uniform career break scheme for teachers, and a limit of 10 years will apply to all.