Two thousand jobs lost ... and counting

Fears of big cuts in teaching posts seem to have been well founded. As the last schools announce their budgets, the total looks likely to pass 7,000. Maureen O'Connor reports and, below, visits two schools
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The Independent Online
By the end of this month it will be clear just how many of the "thousands" of teachers that Gillian Shephard warned Cabinet colleagues would lose their jobs this year will actually be going. The deadline by which school budgets must be set, resignations handed in and redundancies and retirements - voluntary or compulsory - finalised is 31 May.

The teacher unions are monitoring the situation closely. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which reported 2,000 job losses by the beginning of May - a total which did not include figures for some of the hardest-hit counties - says that the losses will be much higher by the end of the month.

The 14,000 job losses, year on year, predicted by Professor Alan Smithers of Manchester University in a survey for the Times Educational Supplement may be a bit on the high side, says the NAHT's David Hart. But he says he would not be surprised to see the total for the year pass 7,000.

The NAHT is monitoring other aspects of the funding crisis in time for its annual conference next week. The first indications are that there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of schools underspending their budgets, and an increase in those going into deficit. In other words, most schools will face the new school year, when more budget reductions are threatened, with at best no contingency reserve in the bank, and at worst, in the red.

Schools are reporting a significant worsening in pupil-teacher ratios to the NAHT. Many are worried about whether they can deliver the national curriculum and provide for children with special needs from their own resources.

Most heads and governors have come to terms with their local education authorities over spending levels, however unhappily. But a few schools have seen their local education authorities take over financial administration from governors. That is an uncomfortable experience, according to Bob Jelley, a headteacher and a leading campaigner against the cuts. The governors at his school, St Giles Middle School in Warwickshire, refused to set a legal budget.

Stella Stynes, one of the governors, has become the board's representative and is still trying to reach agreement with an education authority official and the headteacher over where the cuts should fall. She is unrepentant about the stand the governors took, although deeply unhappy that this week officials further up the hierarchy rejected a settlement which the school could reluctantly live with. "We went through every possibility, reconvened and pared it down, until we decided that it was impossible to reduce spending as much as they wanted," she said.

Mrs. Stynes' unhappiness highlights the reason why many campaigners are looking ahead to the next battle before the ink is dry on this year's budgets. The focus is turning to next year's local government settlement, with many local education authorities already warning their schools that cuts at least as bad as this year's, if not worse, are still to come.

The campaign group Fight Against Cuts in Education (Face), which erupted in the shire counties in January and had by March inspired a 20,000-strong demonstration in London, meets in Coventry in a fortnight to work out a long-term strategy. Face is a non-political organisation, whose leaders say they are willing to work with anyone who shares their aims. Conservative councillors and supporters will be welcome at their conference next month, as long as they care about education and will work for better funding, along with teachers' unions.

The next action for Face will be two-pronged, says Bob Jelley, who sits on the executive committee. It plans to continue its campaign of lobbies and demonstrations, particularly in marginal Conservative parliamentary constituencies. The objective is to gain a review of educational funding and a commitment to a legal maximum class size of 30 by the year 2000.

"This isn't going to go away," says Mr Jelley. "I think we still have to persuade the Government that this year's battle was not just a question of tight control of spending, but the dismemberment of the education service. Gillian Shephard warned her colleagues that there would be a high political price to pay for the cuts, and we saw the first evidence of that in the local government elections.

"Class size is not the only issue," Mr Jelley adds. "There seems to be no appreciation of what we need to offer children in a modern educational system. We ought to be setting targets for computers per child. The national curriculum demands information technology but there is no money to provide it. Even pictures of computers would be an advance on what my school has now."

'Educationally, it's indefensible'

"For a while it looked as if I was going to have to make people redundant in my first term here," says John Hewlett, who took over as head of Barley Hill Primary School in Thame, Oxfordshire in January. "I would have been devastated."

Mr Hewlett arrived to find his 520-strong school facing the local education authority's cuts of 5.8 per cent: with spending on books and equipment down topounds 34 per child, this meant reducing the staff by 3.4 teachers and cutting a third from the hours of ancillary helpers.

In the event three teachers decided to retire earlier than they had planned, and one temporary contract came to an end. Compulsory redundancy was avoided, but years of experience are being lost, Mr Hewlett says. "I really resist the idea that when I make a new appointment in future I may have to look at how much teachers cost rather than how good they are."

In a primary school, with new children coming in every term, the impact of cuts is immediate, Mr Hewlett says. Thirty-three four-year-olds have come in this term on a half-time basis. Some have had to be put in classes with older children, which he does not think is ideal.

When the cuts are fully implemented Barley Hill will cease to be a school where each year group is taught in single age classes, but there is some staffing leeway to cope with the new intake in the summer and allow curriculum co-ordinators non-class time to work with colleagues.

In future, classes will be bigger - up from 25 to 30 in most cases - some with children from more than one year group. At the same time extra adult help, particularly for children with special needs, will be reduced.

"These things are not luxuries," Mr Hewlett says. "Our support assistants, for instance, are vital if we are to do justice to children who have learning problems. The national curriculum also means that children need extra adults in the classrooms if they are to do the practical work it entails.

"Educationally, it's indefensible to be reducing staff now, knowing that we will need to appoint again next summer when the new intake comes in. It builds in instability at the time children need stability most."

'Pupils will suffer for years to come'

"I have absolutely no confidence that we will get through the year solvent," says Kevin Scott, head of Nicholas Chamberlaine School in Warwickshire. The 1,250-strong comprehensive serves the small community of Bedworth, near Coventry. It boasts a nationally renowned art department and is anticipating a favourable Ofsted report this week.

Chamberlaine will start the next school year with 13 fewer teachers and a conviction that a flu epidemic would bring the school to its knees. Faced with a budget shortfall of pounds 280,000, a 10 per cent cut, the governors have not made allowance for cover if teachers fall ill.

The budget reduction is only partly a result of Warwickshire's overall cut of pounds 6m in education spending. Failure to fund the teachers' pay settlements for two years and demographic factors have made a bad situation worse. Mr Scott views Warwickshire's projected cuts of another pounds 10m next year and pounds 17m the year after with disbelief.

He takes some comfort from the fact that 12 of his 13 staff losses have been achieved relatively painlessly through voluntary means. Only one teacher possibly faces compulsory redundancy. But there is no comfort, he says, in the fact that next year 61 teachers will have to shoulder the burden currently borne by 75. The pupil-teacher ratio will worsen from 16:1 to 19:1.

"The biggest impact will be on class sizes. We will be packing 30 hefty 16-year-olds into rooms designed for 25. Practical classes, which the unions argue ought not to have more than 20 pupils for safety reasons, will inevitably become larger. Opportunities for practical work and hands- on computer experience will be diminished. The art department is planning to put students in the corridor to allow them adequate space to work."

At the same time, allowances for books and equipment have been savagely reduced, the library will no longer be supervised and the caretaking staff will be allowed only pounds 15,000 for maintenance and basic supplies.

"What grieves me most is that schools are losing highly valued older teachers who offer experience and stability. Pupils and the profession will suffer for this for years to come," Mr Scott says.