As the timetables for next year are being published, heads of department across the country are bracing themselves for the next round of disgruntlement and dissatisfaction ("Why has she got two top sets and I haven’t got any?") and constant reminders of the mantra about never being able to please anyone. Heads are relieved that 1 June has come and gone and, for better or worse, they at least have a clear(er) idea of September staffing. The race to get the best candidates secured for September has begun, and they must restrain the urge to pounce on anyone who mentions that they know something about computer science and once flirted with the idea of teaching.
The cuts to school funding are hurting more and more, and while we might want to rant, increased class sizes and the cutting of low-interest subjects are now a reality. The ingenuity of school timetables is being tested to the max, with "under-timetabled" staff, team teaching and planned intervention usually no longer remotely an option. Teachers are going to be asked to teach outside their subject areas and will receive short shrift if they protest – this is the reality for most schools. If it’s somebody’s fault, that boat has long sailed and we have to buckle up and get on with it.
But while you may be angry that you didn’t get to see your class through, or get the A level class you have been requesting for years, or that you have shared classes and multiple classrooms (again), there is a much darker phenomenon in schools that I fear will increasingly become the norm.
I am more aware than ever of my ethical responsibilities and no direct allusion to any specific school or individually exists nor should be inferred.
But I do know lots of teachers. And they talk to me. And amid the now sadly familiar stories of just not being able to take it any more – of crying in store cupboards and irretrievable breakdowns with colleagues leading teachers to take the decision to jump ship – there is something else going on that actually gives me sleepless nights.
Not-so 'voluntary' redundancy
These stories are ones I am hearing with increasing frequency, from all over the country and all sorts of schools. Heads are standing up and announcing the beginning of a formal procedure. The head will typically meet with all the staff, as the procedure requires must happen, and announce that the school needs to save X thousands of pounds. With the careful support of governors and line managers, the head will then start on a certain area of the school. The examples I’ve heard of include special educational needs, the expressive arts, heads of year and pastoral roles. The sacred "core", English and maths, appears to be untouched so far, although "natural wastage" (a real term!) is very much a thing – if colleagues leave, they won’t be replaced unless absolutely necessary. Having a body in front of a class is the priority.
The team has a meeting with a senior member of staff. The opportunity to take voluntary redundancy is tabled. This is followed by a clear message that, even if they choose not to do so, their jobs may not be secure. And that if they secure another post elsewhere within X number of weeks, the redundancy offer is no longer an option.
There's much soul-searching and difficult conversations. A few days pass, and it transpires that the redundancy option is not "voluntary" at all in the case of several middle leaders (with families to support). Anyone who does decide to take redundancy (or, as seems to be increasingly the case, the kind of "settlement agreements" people in the media and business refer to in hushed tones) is asked to sign a document saying that, in return for a positive reference, they will not speak or write of the incident.
Within three weeks of first contacting me, one of my Bristol-based respondents had handed in her badge and her gun (sorry, keys and pass), been quite literally passed her cardboard box of possessions, and left the building. I haven’t heard from her since. I imagine that, after 24 years’ service in the same school, she’s reeling. I wonder if she had the chance to say goodbye to her students? Or to visit familiar corners of the school with fondness? I remember the speeches and gifts and proper sense of closure I’ve received when leaving schools and feel a little sick at the impact of the probably one line in the bulletin to thank her for her dedicated service. Bye then, and thanks.
It’s hard for her to have much sympathy for the member of senior leadership team who delivered the final blow. But hang on. Let’s switch to another context.
Let’s say we’re in Manchester at a primary school. A similar phenomenon but with, proportionally, if anything, bigger casualties. The head has two deputy heads. One is in his 32nd year in the school. The other is a bright young thing in her early thirties. Deputy teachers are expensive: "You could get three NQTs for him", heads are told and forced to think. The two deputies are told by the head (let’s spare a moment to sympathise with her) that there is only one post. If they choose to bow out, they will be offered a generous settlement agreement and a great reference. The more senior teacher agonises. This job has been an elemental part of his life for decades. He and the head go back years. Their families grew up together. They've taught the parents – and even a few of the grandparents – of their students.
After a conversation with his wife, he concludes that if the school wants him to stay, they'll find a way. But, he doesn’t get the job. And he doesn’t get the enhanced redundancy either. On 21 July, he will no longer have a job.
We have a teacher crisis though, yes? A seasoned veteran in the profession is bound to be snapped up. Hang on, though: he’s worth five NQTs, so unless he’s prepared to accept a third of his salary, perhaps not. He still has a mortgage to pay and 12 years before he can officially retire. As I say, sleepless nights.
I know people in this position and I want to cry for them. I fear that this isn’t going to go away. It makes me gnash and rant and rail once more at this double-edged crisis of funding cuts and teacher shortages that has led us to this.
If you’re hacked off with your school for giving you set five Year 9 again, or cheesed off that you have to brush up the RE skills you’ve never really had, please know it could be worse. Those of us with stable jobs, especially we oldies who’ve been in this game for a decade or two, when I say it could be worse, this isn’t a platitude, it’s a dark reality.
Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching