The gloomy school budgets survey presented to this week's conference of the National Association of Head Teachers has prompted fears of a new wave of compulsory teacher redundancies.
But the threat to jobs does not just come from Whitehall. In many parts of the country, falling rolls will force headteachers and local authorities to look hard at their school staffing complements.
In Wales, the South-west and the North, school-age populations have been falling for some time, and the Department for Education and Skills is expecting primary rolls throughout the UK to fall sharply after 2004.
Secondary rolls are due to peak in January 2004. But the subsequent decline is now expected to be greater than the last DFES forecast, with around 60,000 fewer pupils in 2011 than was projected a year ago. By 2012 the secondary sector could have 122,000 fewer pupils than in 2000. At current pupil-teacher ratios, that would mean about 10,000 fewer teachers.
For British Education plc this could be good news. It might ease the teacher-recruitment crisis or lead to more generous pupil-teacher ratios. But as long as the funding formulae used by LEAs remain driven by pupil numbers, for individual schools smaller classes will mean smaller budgets. Heads may therefore want to blow the dust off their "redundancy procedures" file.
As governing bodies have control over staffing, any redundancy decisions must be taken by them, ideally by a sub-committee of the full governing body. Even in community schools the LEA is obliged to issue a redundancy notice if the governors decide to dismiss a teacher. The 1998 School Standards and Framework Act requires LEAs to cover the costs associated with dismissals and redundancies, but it also allows them to pass the bill back to the school. Only a cavalier and foolish governing body would therefore make such decisions without taking LEA advice into account.
For heads, the main problem is how to select the teachers who will receive the unwelcome news. The law expects employers to follow five "fair practice" principles, so heads should:
* Establish objective criteria for selection of staff for redundancy.
* Apply the criteria fairly.
* Warn staff about the possibility of redundancies as soon as possible.
* Consult with teacher unions.
* Take reasonable steps to find alternative employment for displaced staff.
All this takes time and the process should generally start no later than the beginning of the spring term. Redundancy notices can then be issued at the end of May to take effect at the end of August.
Some criteria for redundancy may appear objective, but will still land a school in trouble. Heads cannot select part-timers first, because part-time work is more likely to be done by women. Such a policy would therefore discriminate indirectly against them.
First-in, first-out may be appropriate in an industrial context, but in a school it could rob the curriculum of its best maths, English or science teacher.
Selection based on competence may also seem fair, but heads who use this method need to be able to produce some pretty robust evidence, because their decision could be challenged at an employment tribunal. It is probably at this stage that some heads will regret that they did not "buy in" LEA professional advice on personnel issues.
It is, of course, worth remembering that compulsory redundancies are still rare in schools because teachers can usually be deployed elsewhere. One Midlands head agonised for months about the need to lose 14 staff when his 11-18 school lost its sixth form. "There were curriculum audits, consultation meetings, the process seemed to last forever," he said. But come August no one was forced to leave.
The LEA found jobs for some, two took early retirement, several moved to posts outside the county, and one left teaching altogether.
The conciliation service ACAS has issued advice for employers on redundancy procedures. The teaching unions can also offer detailed advice on redundancy procedures.
Contact ACAS on 0207 210 3613 or see its website