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Catching staff before they fall

As pupil numbers continue to decline, Nic Barnard looks at the contrasting ways in which two local authorities are coping

Falling rolls are nothing new in Newcastle. Even as numbers swelled around the country, they were dropping here by 300 a year. This year, they are down by 600.

It is the result of years of economic struggle that have seen the population decline. Urban regeneration may bring more families, but officials expect only to slow the fall in schools. Other pupils are lost across the border to Northumberland. By 2008, planners predict 3,000 surplus primary places and 2,500 secondary.

In that context, reorganisations have become a way of life. Slated by the Office for Standards in Education four years ago for its spare capacity, Newcastle has brought surplus places down below 10 per cent. Three primary schools closed recently, and two secondaries amalgamated. Another raft of changes are currently with the schools adjudicator, and officials are working on further plans to reduce four primaries to two or three in its inner-east district.

"It's an extremely difficult process," says Phil Turner, director of education and libraries. "You don't win many friends. We've had a lot of parental opposition to all the school closures we've mooted."

The authority has developed a "basket of indicators" to inform their decisions. "We look at whether the school budget is still sound, what kind of Ofsted reports they're getting, local population projections and the like," Mr Turner says. "When we find three or four of these are coming up, we move towards closure."

But the city hopes to turn the situation to its advantage. It is part of a national pilot for "full service schools", taking housing, welfare, health, youth and other services into some primaries to help support struggling communities.

Extended schools are another model being examined. "We're trying to absorb some of the surplus places by legitimately serving the community," Mr Turner says.

Newcastle is also going ahead with a bid for Private Finance Initiative cash to replace some of its crumbling buildings. The new schools are likely to be slightly smaller than the ones they replace. But what if numbers rise?

"We've projected to 2012 and the numbers are still down. Unless regeneration works, we're seeing falling rolls for the foreseeable future."

With large tracts of land cleared for development, any new schools are likely to be elsewhere in the city anyway.

Newcastle wins plaudits for its policy on redeployment. The National Union of Teachers says there have been no compulsory redundancies in 10 years. An informal agreement with heads sees the local authority pass on potential candidates from closing schools for vacancies before jobs are advertised nationally.

"We try to place teachers as early as we can, so they can see they've got a job to go to at the end. That's crucial to keeping as many teachers as possible in school, working to closure," Turner says. "Heads can say to me unequivocally they're not interested. But there is a recognition that if a school is closing for falling rolls, there will be good teachers there."

The authority puts any who cannot be placed in its supply pool, guaranteeing their salary. Only around three teachers are in the pool at present, a sign of the success of redeployment.

John Braithwaite, Newcastle branch secretary for the NUT, says the system has worked well so far. But it remains stressful for teachers. "A lot of staff are afraid of the stigma (of redundancy). A lot of them are very experienced, but we have to do interview training because they haven't had an interview in 30 years."

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