Hard choices for modern managers

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Teacher redundancies in a single education authority do not a crisis make (page 1). Unless, of course, you teach or learn in that authority. But there are ominous and unwelcome signs that the funding problems of last year are not completely behind us.

Nobody - including the Education Secretary Charles Clarke - knows for sure how many more job losses will follow or whether the guaranteed increase per child will stave off another embarrassing funding row. Ministers cannot be completely confident. They do not know how many schools are already in deficit from last year, or would be if they had not used up reserves which will not be there to bail them out this year.

Many schools reduced staffing last year, mostly by the crude and unsustainable measure of not replacing those who left. There were a few planned redundancies through falling rolls. But given the protracted legal procedures involved in such dismissals, for most this was not an option for saving cash in this financial year by the time the full impact of the cash crisis became clear. Even Charles Clarke initially told heads not to reduce staff because the money was coming.

This year will be different. Schools are forewarned. And even as he launched his rescue plan in the autumn Mr Clarke urged heads to take "hard decisions" to balance budgets: code for reducing staff costs.

As was clear from TES reports last year, many heads simply refuse to make hardworking colleagues bear the consequences of the Government's miscalculations. Following on from the recruitment crisis, for many it was the last straw. They would sooner resign, they said. And many, it seems, have now done just that (page 4).

Again, one month's vacancies are a portent but not necessarily a trend - even when they rival the record set in 1997 when changes to the early retirement rules created a rush for the exit. But heads giving up the struggle are likely to cause few tears at the Department for Education and Skills, which is facing staff cuts of its own.

It may even be regarded as positive news there since the department's ideal of "modern management" includes making the most of whatever budget you are given rather than arguing for more on the basis of pupil needs or "historic costs": management-speak for continued employment for loyal staff who have flogged their guts out to deliver every half-baked reform thrown at them.

Ministers were quick to distance themselves from the DfES "blue skies thinking" paper on workforce reform revealed in The TES before Christmas.

They may deny what the paper called the "presentationally uncomfortable" idea of reducing teacher numbers to pay for more classroom assistants. But they pin their hopes on what that paper referred to as "modern management practices".

Ministers need more muscular school leadership to deliver the Government's workload and performance management policies within limited budgets, and to cope with the rough justice that will inevitably accompany any move to centralised school funding. The question now is, are there enough - or any - willing to take on headship on such terms?

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