Schools were forced to lay off 21,000 staff in summer funding crisis

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Schools hit by this summer's education funding crisis were forced to lay off 21,000 teachers and support staff, a new study shows. Almost half the secondary schools surveyed and one in five primaries have increased class sizes as a result.

The report, by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson from the University of Liverpool, shows the budget crisis is worse than thought. It also questions Government claims that the number of "loser" schools are in a minority, with an estimate that between 14,000 and 15,000 of the country's 23,000 state schools suffered a budget cut in real terms. In all, 56 per cent of primary schools and 63 per cent of secondaries surveyed reported that this year's budget was worse than last year. The funding cuts were the first since Labour came to power in 1997, pledging to make education a top priority. "The consequences for the majority of schools have been disastrous," Professor Smithers said.

The report shows 8,800 teaching posts (5,502 in primary schools and 3,115 in secondaries) were cut along with 12,300 support staff. About2,000 teachers were made redundant, compared with the 500 redundancies estimated by Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier in the summer. The report said some schools emerged as "winners", taking on teachers. But the net reduction in teachers' jobs was 4,537, putting the pressure on Labour's election pledge to employ 10,000 extra teachers in its second term.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, which commissioned the research, said ministers were "deliberately underfunding schools" so that heads were forced to employ cheaper classroom assistants. The union is opposed to a national agreement on reducing teachers' workload which allows classroom assistants to take control of lessons. "The impact on the pupils could be devastating," Mr McAvoy said. "We don't think this is happening by chance. It is a deliberate government policy."

Professor Smithers said schools would struggle to avoid further redundancies, despite £800 million in funding pledged for the next two years. Many schools had slashed their reserves and could not protect teachers' jobs. He said class sizes were "nudging upwards" as a result of the funding cuts, and over 40 per cent of secondary schools said more classes would be taken by teachers not trained in the relevant subject.

Primary schools said that headteachers and senior staff would have to do more teaching. "Primary schools were often planning to reduce the teachers' already very limited planning, preparation, marking and assessment time," the report said. Under the new teachers' contract, however, they should be guaranteed 10 per cent of time away from the classroom by 2005.

The report was based on a survey of 980 primary schools and 368 secondaries. The Department of Education has questioned the findings, saying the report "appears to have lost touch with reality". "The scale of these figures, based on a very small sample, does not tally with assessments we have seen from other teachers unions," a spokesman said. Graham Lane, Labour education chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "In surveys like this, the schools that have got problems respond."