Legal challenge to teachers' early retirement plan in Northern Ireland
Almost 100 teachers hoping to retire early have been left in limbo after a Department of Education scheme was halted due to a legal challenge.
The Investing in the Teaching Workforce Scheme was announced in 2015 by former Education Minister John O'Dowd, but delayed due to a lack of agreement over criteria, including the definition of the term 'newly-qualified'.
The initial £33m scheme was supposed to allow teachers over the age of 55 to retire and be replaced by those who have graduated since 2012.
But it sparked opposition from teachers who have been qualified for longer than the stipulated period, who felt they had been left out and could not take advantage of the scheme.
A smaller £8m version of the scheme was opened last year by the most recent Education Minister, Peter Weir, but the Department - which is currently without a minister - has now suspended the scheme due to a legal challenge.
Some 120 conditional offers were made to teachers wishing to exit the profession under the terms of this scheme, out of 460 expressions of interest. Of those offers, 98 were accepted.
These will remain live, but paused, pending the outcome of the legal challenge.
A spokeswoman for the Department confirmed a teacher was seeking a judicial review of the scheme.
"The legal challenge relates to the scheme stipulation that applications for replacement teaching positions will be open to recently qualified teachers.
"The applicant believes that this is unlawful age-related discrimination," she said.
"The Department believes that there is strong objective justification for the scheme and is contesting the challenge on that basis.
"Given the need to plan and deliver the scheme in a manner which delivers certainty and minimises disruption for schools, teachers and pupils, the Department has taken a decision to pause implementation until the court has determined the judicial review application."
She said the move meant that the planned exits of serving teachers and recruitment of recently qualified teachers under the terms of the scheme will not take place in the current academic year, which ends on August 31, 2017.
The Ulster Teachers' Union claimed the situation is the "biggest crisis in a generation".
"This amounts to the worst possible news coming at the worst possible time, when teacher morale is at an all-time low.
"Members are reeling.
"Just when you think things can't get any worse for our profession the Department of Education launches this salvo," said Avril Hall Callaghan, General Secretary of the UTU.