FALLING rolls, rather than the funding crisis, are to blame for half the redundancies schools have made this year, the country's second largest teachers' union has claimed.
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers calculates that of an estimated 604 dismissals, 50 per cent were due to falling rolls, 34 per cent to budget shortfalls, and 16 to other reasons, including school reorganisations.
The figures are based on the union's survey of 65 English local education authorities which found that they had issued 687 "section 188" notices warning teachers of possible redundancies. The warnings resulted in 260 dismissals by the May 31 cut-off date. Extrapolated across all LEAs in England, this equals 604 redundancies.
The survey suggests that Cornwall, Essex, Northamptonshire, Staffordshire and the Wirral are witnessing some of the steepest falls in pupil numbers.
The Wirral, for example, is expecting its primary population to fall from 27,000 to 24,000 between 2002 and 2007.
At school level, it can be difficult to disentangle the financial effects of falling rolls from the other factors pushing up costs this year. Alan Stockley, head of Landywood primary in Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, where pupil numbers are down from 630 five years ago to around 450 today, has had to make up a shortfall of pound;55,000-60,000 this year. He has not had time to work out exactly how much of that is due to rising salary, pensions and national insurance costs and how much to the fall in pupil numbers.
"What I need is to be pragmatic and say what are the implications for my school," he said. "The implications are that we've got to reorganise and not replace the two members of staff who are leaving."
Far more jobs have been lost through non-renewal of temporary contracts and failure to fill vacancies than redundancy, according to David Hart, general secretary of the National Association for Head Teachers. Questioning the survey findings, Mr Hart said that if it was not for the current funding crisis, falling rolls would allow schools to cut class sizes and make other improvements.
"I'm very worried about this argument that seems to be gaining currency that a falling roll is a good reason for reducing staff," he added. "If we get ourselves into that mindset, we are never going to be able to improve provision for our teachers and pupils."
The NASUWT survey suggests that only a handful of authorities are planning to close schools. But that could change. The Department for Education and Skills estimates that primary pupil numbers fell by 97,300 in England between 1998 and 2002. A further fall of 300,000 is expected by 2012. In Wales, primary numbers rose during the 1990s but are expected to drop from 271,400 in 20012 to 239,000 by 2010.
Falling birth rates are obviously the main reason for this decline, but population movements can also affect individual schools. Families moving out of rural areas into towns and cities left many village schools with surplus places. But the growing number of people now moving in the opposite direction means some rural schools are now struggling to meet demand for places.
CASE STUDY: WATFORD'S GAPS
STAFF at Leavesden Green thought that after years of decline their school had finally turned the corner.
With 211 children on roll and a capacity of almost 300, the Watford primary still has plenty of spare places, but numbers have recently been creeping up as new housing developments have attracted young families into the area.
So staff were devastated to learn last month that Hertfordshire County Council intends to close the school in July 2004.
"We don't think it makes sense to close a successful school and certainly not in this area, at this time with so much building going on," said headteacher Jean Pocock.
She and her staff are especially anxious that the school's playing fields and nature reserve should be kept for educational use.
But the school's chances of survival do not look good, although the county's teacher shortage means that staff should be able to find new jobs.
With around 100,000 primary places and just 87,000 children to fill them, Hertfordshire council is reviewing its provision.
It has started with north Watford, which has 500 empty places and where Leavesden Green is the emptiest school. But a council spokesman stressed that there were no plans to take out all the surplus places.
"If you take away all the empty places, parents have very little choice of school and you can't run a system that tightly," he said.
"But neither can you afford a lot of empty places - especially with the settlement we've had from the Government this year."