Going, going, gone

20th October 1995 at 01:00
More teachers than ever before are facing the economic and psychological nightmare of redundancy. The experience has left many scarred, as Susannah Kirkman discovers.

The dictionary defines redundancy as being "superfluous" and "no longer needed", which spells out all too bluntly the message delivered to more than 5,000 teachers this summer.

Whether redundancy has come as a happy release or a horrible shock, all the people affected need to disprove the idea that they are "surplus to requirements". But sadly, for a profession that is now facing mass redundancies, there isn't much help at hand when it comes to making a new life.

Inevitably, redundancy carries considerable financial worries, yet for many teachers who've been made redundant, it's the emotional pressures which are uppermost in their minds. Loss of confidence, depression and feelings of worthlessness are common. Even those who "volunteered" to go find it extremely hard to come to terms with the experience.

"It's so easy to feel bitter and go under altogether. You seem to be expected to find all the moral support yourself," says Jonathan Pickering, a deputy head who accepted voluntary redundancy after the number of deputy posts at his London school was cut from three to two. "Once you're identified as redundant, you're forgotten about and you have to survive on your own. There are no structures for helping teachers through redundancy."

For Fiona Collins, who was an advisory teacher in London until she was made redundant last March "it leaves a lot of unresolved feelings, but you get no advice on how to deal with them." Six months after she left her job, she happened to walk past the school where she started her teaching career 15 years ago and was overwhelmed by sadness. "You feel as though you've completely lost your identity, but your pain is not even recognised as a valid response. I would at least like my feelings acknowledged," she says.

Elke Hirsch was made compulsorily redundant from her job as a modern langauges teacher to reduce a budget deficit at at a Bournemouth secondary school. "I came into teaching partly becase it was a job for life; now, no one feels safe unless they are a head of department or a head of year," she says.

With no school governors to fight for her, Zoe Image, a former advisory teacher from London, received a worse deal than many teachers in her authority. She has had to sell her home to keep afloat financially but found the loss of her career as difficult to cope with as the wrench of losing her home. She now feels very isolated. "It's a bit like Captain Oates marching off into the polar regions," she says.

Fiona Collins agrees that it's a lonely experience. "Education is fundamentally about working with other people and it's not very easy suddenly to stop doing that."

The trauma of redundancy seems doubly worse for teachers because, unlike business and industry, education managers have not been trained to deal with redundant employees. Crass insensitivity is one result.

"You are constantly kicked in the teeth," says Jonathan Pickering, who had to collect his own redundancy notice from the post office after it had been sent by registered delivery. Attached to the notice was a letter addressed to someone else, thanking him for his work as a classroom teacher; the letter praising Jonathan's work as a deputy head had been sent to another colleague. Nor was he cheered by the chair of governor's relief when he agreed to take voluntary redundancy. "She told me it had cost her many sleepless nights, " he comments wryly.

A common reaction by employers to a teacher's redundancy is to pretend that it isn't happening. Against all precedent, at Jonathan Pickering's farewell the speech was given by his head of department, rather than the headteacher. Zoe Image's boss left the room immediately before a colleague made a speech of thanks. She did not even receive a card from her employers, let alone a gold watch.

Fiona Collins received a letter on March 28 telling her that her last day of service was to be March 31. She was unable to work until the summer half term, as she had planned, and could not say goodbye to the newly-qualified teachers she had been supporting and working with all year.

"The person who'd written the letter wouldn't even look me in the face, " she recalls. The letter she wrote to her employers expressing her unhappiness with the redundancy procedures still remains unanswered.

Formal advice on finances or finding other work, a standard procedure in a large company, seems thin on the ground for teachers. At a debriefing after Jonathan Pickering had been re-interviewed for his own job, an inspector asked him what he was planning to do. "I had actually been hoping for some advice from him," says Jonathan ruefully. Instead, Jonathan was told he would have to pay for any professional advice or counselling himself.

When Zoe Image organised professional financial advice for a group of colleagues, they had to foot half the bill themselves.

Teaching unions may provide invaluable help in negotiating good redundancy terms, or in advising members who want to claim unfair dismissal. But teachers feel they need continuing support after they have left their jobs and that isn't forthcoming.

"The union got me a good deal, but once that's done, that's the end of it," explains Jonathan Pickering. While he recognises the financial constraints, Jonathan believes that unions and local authorities should be training a few people in the skills to counsel teachers and help them to move on. Although members can still turn to their unions for advice after they have left their jobs, they must take the initiative; there is no formal structure to help them maintain the contact.

"Not very much counselling goes on," admitted one regional union organiser. "In the past, people have gone voluntarily so they didn't need counselling or help in finding other employment."

But union officials should be aware that teachers will need even more support in the future. Schools are running out of eager volunteers in their 50s, which will mean an increase in the number of compulsory redundancies.

Where local authority help does exist, there is often no space for teachers, as Ron Butler discovered. After 28 years in teaching, he accepted an early retirement redundancy package from Dorset County Council. But he never received an answer to his application for a place on a county-run course for redundant employees. "My friend in roads and bridges got on it and said it was marvellous," Ron Butler says. "I am still in the dark over things like national insurance stamps and paying voluntary contributions." After waiting in vain for supply work to materialise, Ron has now started his own printing business.

Ultimately, emotional support and job advice usually comes from families, friends and colleagues. Fiona Collins has been buoyed up by the sympathy and expressions of appreciation from the heads and classroom teachers she used to work with. She is now completing a PhD at Roehampton Institute in London, and is building a new career as a professional story-teller.

Zoe Image is giving in-service training for teachers and is teaching print-making. "It's not a proper job there are no holidays or sick pay, but it's good for my morale," she says. She has kept in touch with her former colleagues who are all advisory teachers and last month they spent a weekend away together. But insecurity is never far away. Recently the college where she now works telephoned her at home and Zoe immediately assumed they wanted to cut her hours in fact they were calling to increase them.

Elke Hirsch despaired of ever finding work; modern languages posts are thin on the ground as they are often among the first to be cut. But she now has a job teaching German at an independent school.

Jonathan Pickering took advice from his closest friend, an inspector, and is taking an MA course in school management at London University. He is hoping to start applying for headships in the spring. "You have to put all the emotional baggage behind you and make yourself saleable," he says. "You have to do something positive. It's a question of keeping your nerve."

If redundancy is looming ... There is a dearth of general advice for redundant teachers this list has been compiled with help from the people interviewed above.

o Start putting money aside. The lump redundancy sum may arrive late.

o Get all the financial information you can. The Benefits Agency can tell you whether you need to continue making voluntary contributions, for instance.

o Use your union to get you the best possible redundancy package. Unions will also continue to offer advice after you have left your job, but you will have to contact them. o Try to find other possible sources of support and counselling. Warn your friends and family that you are likely to feel moody and depressed.

o Recognise that you will have to take most of the initiative in rebuilding your life, which can be difficult if you are feeling very down.

o Don't give up. There is another world outside your school and you can survive.

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