Three out of four primary schools are being forced to make cuts next term, an Independent survey shows. That would mean more than 16,000 schools in England and Wales having to make cuts, and 1,700 staff losing their jobs.
Heads say the cash squeeze will jeopardise the Government's biggest achievement, its much-trumpeted improvements in literacy and numeracy. The cuts are the result of a new law, which comes into effect next term, guaranteeing all teachers 10 per cent of time away from the classroom for marking and preparation. More than one in 12 schools are being forced to sack staff.
The survey of 500 primary schools was done in conjunction with the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). Many headteachers are warning that standards will suffer. The cuts include increasing class sizes - with one school head teaching five classes, a total of 150 pupils, doing away with smaller groups which help those struggling to read and write, and sacking staff.
One in nine schools has been forced to go into the red by declaring deficit budgets. But only five of the 150 who responded said they would be breaking the law and refusing to implement the new agreement. One of these has a signed declaration from its 13 teaching staff that they would prefer not to implement the contract, rather than declare a teacher redundant.
At least three schools have had to introduce mixed-age group classes for the first time. One headteacher, Catherine Frost of the 372-pupil St Albans Roman Catholic Primary School in Wallasey, Wirral, is being forced to teach seven- and eight-year-olds in the same class.
Ms Frost, a headteacher for eight years, said: "I am deeply concerned about the measures I have been forced to take to meet my legal obligation, as are my teachers, governors and parents.
"I feel despairing, but we're desperately trying to do the right thing. This is the hardest and most frustrating decision I've had to take in all my years of headship."
The schools' plight is a major embarrassment for ministers who have trumpeted improvements in standards in primary schools as their most spectacular success story. The percentage of pupils reaching the required reading and maths standards for 11-year-olds has soared from 60 per cent to 78 per cent and 74 per cent respectively since 1997.
Nearly half the schools in the survey said some lessons would be covered by classroom assistants, in many cases against the headteacher's better judgement. One headteacher from West Yorkshire said: "I am very worried. Standards and behaviour will deteriorate by using teaching assistants."
Another from Birmingham said: "How will this raise standards? Our staff would rather be left with their class and have extra support staff to improve their work-life balance. Children will suffer."
David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said: "It is clear the implementation of the workload agreement is placing a great deal of strain on primary-school budgets. The agreement has to be implemented but the message from the survey does not make comfortable reading for those who say funding is not an issue, that there will not be job losses and that standards will not be affected."
The threat to jobs has already brought warnings from one teachers' union of industrial action.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "In any school where claims are made that staffing will be or is being reduced, we will call for the Department for Education and Skills to investigate the claims through a scrutiny of the school's budget."
In one primary school, the headteacher is extending morning assembly by 15 minutes every day to 30 minutes and allowing it to be taken by classroom assistants so teachers can have their time off.
In one in 10 schools, headteachers will roll their sleeves up and sacrifice time set aside for running the school by acting as supply teachers.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "We believe we have offered a sufficient funding increase to pay for planning, preparation and assessment time.
"The vast majority of schools are quietly getting on with the implementation with many already giving the 10 per cent time well ahead of the deadline in September."Reuse content