A tale of savage cuts and golden hellos

Richard Garner reports on the contrasts at the heart of a system in chaos
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The Independent Online

Forget the threat of redundancies - Tim Benson's problem is recruiting teachers in the first place.

His school in Newham, east London, is one of many in the South that have to offer new staff a series of sweeteners - from golf club membership to £1,000 "golden hellos" - just for turning up to teach.

So while some of the schools worst hit by the budget crisis are warning of laying off staff, others are touting for employees.

The golf package is being offered by Thurrock's local education authority, while Newham council is allowing schools to boost teachers' salaries by up to £1,500.

Mr Benson, head of Nelson primary school, said the incentives retain some staff who would otherwise leave. However, the school has suffered a £60,000 shortfall this year, which means the loss of a teaching post.

"I'm relying on six agency teachers," Mr Benson said. "They cost nearly £37,000 a year, with commission, compared to £25,000-£27,000 for a home-grown teacher." Those he has hired come from as far afield as New Zealand, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

"They are excellent teachers," he said, "but they do need help to get to know the national curriculum, and that takes up the established staff's time."

Even with the incentives, he says,he is lucky if he gets more than one reply to a job advert. "There is no incentive for anyone to move to the South," he said. "What is needed is a London-wide strategy."

That is what the Government's new London "education tsar", Professor Tim Brighouse, and Stephen Twigg, the minister responsible for London schools, are working on.

London and Home Counties teachers' leaders are agreed that - whatever the problems with redundancies around the country - incentives such as Newham's and Thurrock'swill be just as necessary in the years to come as they were during Labour's first five years in office when redundancies were not an issue.

A £100,000 shortfall in the school budget has forced head teacher Peter Bishop to make four of his 12-strong teaching staff redundant this summer, as well as one of seven classroom assistants.

His school, the Vyner primary in Birkenhead, the Wirral, has suffered a drop in its roll - but only from 220 pupils to 200. The teaching redundancies cover three full-time, and one-part time, members of staff.

The cut in staffing will undoubtedly have an impact on the school. "One of the teachers worked on a specialist reading scheme which allows for one-to-one tuition with slow readers," he said. "That will have to go.

"Also the special education needs co-ordinator will now have to take classes full-time, so part of the work that she had been able to do will go, too." In addition, the classroom assistant helped to teach six-year-olds to read.

His local authority is one of those that have suffered the most as a result of the Government's decision to change the formula for distributing school cash this year. Over the Wirral as a whole, 28 full-time teaching posts have been declared redundant and 73 school support staff.

Mr Bishop says he has never known such a financial crisis in his 18 years as a headteacher, a period which has included years when Conservative cuts in public spending were at their greatest.

"I feel devastated by it," he said. "I have had to lose staff over the years but never like this. We have had to lose some excellent teachers this year and their loss will obviously have an effect on the school."

He is particularly critical of attempts by Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, to try to pin the blame for the financial crisis elsewhere. "I think Mr Clarke will say anything to get himself off the hook," he said.

A survey earlier this week byThe Independent showed that 40 per cent of local education authorities are having to make redundancies because of budget shortfalls.

If the figures are an accurate reflection of the country as a whole, around 960 teachers will have received redundancy notices along with more than 530 support staff.