Frightened of brown envelopes

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
Teachers are suffering in silence as casualisation spreads throughout the profession. Elaine Williams reports. British teachers lack Gallic flair when it comes to protesting against an issue causing deep concern on both sides of the Channel - job insecurity.

Whereas French teachers go to extremes such as hunger strikes, the British tend to keep their heads down and work inordinately hard in the hope that the brown envelope will not come their way, or that a temporary contract will be renewed.

During a spate of demonstrations in Paris earlier this year against slashed school budgets and the axeing of thousands of teaching jobs, supply teachers - there are more than 33,000 ma tres auxiliaires - began a spate of hunger strikes in protest against poor working conditions and high unemployment.

In Britain, the increasing casualisation of the teaching force is leading to widespread, but silent, anxiety and further demoralisation of the profession. Teachers have traditionally accepted lower salaries than many other professions, reasoning that at least they had relatively good working conditions and long-term security. But security may be a thing of the past.

There are now around 40,000 teachers in maintained primary and secondary schools on fixed-term contracts, almost one in 10 of the teaching force. Two-thirds of those are in primary schools and 84.6 per cent of them are women. A 1995 survey by the National Union of Teachers found that fixed-term contract-holders made up 9.25 per cent of full-time equivalent staff compared to 8.7 per cent in 1993 and 4.55 per cent in 1983.

Figures from the latest School Teachers' Review Body report also show an increase in part-time staff. The number of full-time equivalent teachers has dropped by 3 per cent over the past five years, from 397,000 to 392,200, and the number of full-time qualified teachers has fallen by 1 per cent, but part-time teachers have increased by 17 per cent, part-time unqualified teachers by 49 per cent and non-teaching staff by 51 per cent.

Some of these people are providing additional support for full-time permanent teachers. But all too often, part-timers, staff on temporary contracts and non-teaching staff are being used as a buffer by schools juggling with tight budgets and facing uncertain futures.

Temporary staff are easier to dispense with should a school catch a financial cold, but permanent staff also feel vulnerable. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy predicted earlier this year that 10,000 teachers' jobs nationally could be lost as a result of the Chancellor's budget settlement for local government. And teacher unions are busy up and down the country as redundancy notices are served.

While the current rush to early retirement, in order to beat changes to the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme, may reduce the number of compulsory redundancies, teachers fear for future years. The anxiety is especially tangible in some of the smaller, unitary authorities which do not have the flexibility and redeployment opportunities that come with economy of scale.

In Wales, where 22 unitary authorities have emerged from eight regional councils, it is believed that 600 to 700 jobs will go before September. David Winfield, who speaks for the National Association of Head Teachers in Wales, said: "Not everybody will want to take early retirement or be old enough to take it. There will have to be compulsory redundancies. The stress on headteachers and senior staff is phenomenal at present." Mr Winfield acknowledges that teachers on fixed-term contracts are most vulnerable because heads "don't have the same allegiance to them".

But the threat is not confined to those on short-term contracts. "In South Wales we have had cuts for the past five years. Staff are getting used to the fact that teaching is no longer a job for life."

Although staff on temporary contracts, but with more than two years' continuous service, do have employment rights, such as entitlement to redundancy pay, they are often denied access to a mortgage and other loans. Teacher morale is particularly low in Scotland, where 1,000 posts have been lost in the past 18 months -700 in the aftermath of local government reorganisation according to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Newly-qualified teachers find it impossible to gain anything other than a fixed-term contract, and according to Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, most authorities will have to make extensive use of temporary contracts. In Glasgow, which has suffered badly from the break-up of Strathclyde, they are the only posts being made available. Mr Smith believes this is corrosive of the long-term development of the profession: "If you are flitting in and out, a here-today-gone-tomorrow sort of person, then your prospects are curtailed and that's bad for the profession."

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