New evidence of the funding crisis in schools emerged this week, with growing numbers seeking legal advice on redundancies among senior staff, and a major survey revealing an increasingly "critical" situation that is jeopardising "highquality education".
Classroom unions are now threatening school-by-school industrial action, including strikes, because they fear squeezed budgets will prevent governors from paying teachers the 1-2 per cent salary increases approved by the government.
But headteachers have warned that the pay rises could drive many schools to the "brink of financial collapse".
Legal experts have told TES that schools are being forced to target deputy and assistant headteachers for redundancy, as they attempt to balance the books at a time of rising costs. At one law firm, the number of requests from schools seeking advice on how to restructure their staff, particularly their leadership teams, has shot up by 50 per cent in recent months.
Meanwhile, the results of a survey of secondary headteachers in the East of England, seen by TES, reveals that two-thirds do not have sufficient funds to "deliver high-quality education" over the next year. The research - which covers secondaries in Essex, Hertfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire - finds that 69 per cent of schools view their 2015-16 financial situation as "serious" or worse.
The survey also reveals that schools are rapidly using up any financial reserves, with 92 per cent of the surveyed secondaries likely to run a budget deficit next year.
More than two-fifths (41 per cent) of the 127 schools think the state of their finances will be "critical" by 2016-17, and another 48 per cent warn that it will be "very serious" or "serious".
A poll of more than 200 primaries in the same region finds that over half believe their finances will be in a serious or worse condition by that date, with more than a third saying they won't have enough money to deliver a "high-quality education" in the next 12 months.
Richard Thomas, the executive director of secondary headteacher associations in Essex and Suffolk, who organised the surveys, said: "We need a solution to this impending crisis now, not when it is too late."
Ministers claim to have "protected" school budgets, but that is only in "cash" terms. Rising costs mean schools are being hit by real-terms cuts.
Mr Thomas said secondaries' post-16 funding had been slashed by up to a fifth since 2010. In addition, rises in teacher pay, national insurance and pension contributions meant that, from September, schools would experience the equivalent of a 4.5 per cent drop in funding. "It will drive many secondary schools to the brink of financial collapse," he warned.
Unions now fear the shortfall is so severe that school governors will be forced to use their new freedoms over pay awards to deny teachers the increases approved by the government.
The NASUWT warned governors this week that it was "committed, with the support of members, to escalating our industrial action" at schools that did not agree to a minimum pay rise of 1 per cent for all teachers.
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, told TES that his union would support industrial action, including strikes, at schools that did not give all teachers a pay rise. Some heads were likely to decide it was "rational" to save money by effectively freezing teacher pay, he added, but this would "exacerbate teacher shortages" if it happened on a large scale.
Leaders laid off
School leaders had been hoping that chancellor George Osborne would ease some of the pressure in this week's emergency Budget, by changing the requirements on state schools for meeting pension and national insurance contributions. But no relief was offered.
Stone King, a law firm that specialises in education, has seen a dramatic rise in the number of schools asking for advice on making redundancies in their management teams.
Roger Inman, partner and head of education at the practice, said: "Given that staffing in many schools is already stripped back, and the worries about teacher recruitment and retention to meet new curriculum demand, we are finding that redundancies are concentrated in particular on senior leadership teams."
Chris Healy, headteacher of Balcarras School in Cheltenham, told TES that cutting senior leadership "seems like a quick and effective way of saving cash", but warned that it could have "damaging effects" in the long term.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We are protecting the schools budget, which will rise as pupil numbers increase. Like all public sector employers, schools will have to contribute more towards pensions to ensure costs can be met in future. We have delayed the increase to September to give schools time to plan."
A `flatter' model of leadership
At Highlands Primary School in Ilford, East London, the traditional leadership model has been replaced with a "flatter" system. Headteacher Kulvarn Atwal says the move has saved a "significant amount" of money.
The restructure means Mr Atwal, pictured, is currently the only member of staff on the leadership pay scale.
"The concept of an old-style deputy head who organises timetabling, cover, playground rotas and leadership of kitchen staff isn't used," Mr Atwal says. "Those tasks go through the office team."
Below him are four "learning leaders" overseeing one or two year groups each. They are supported by one "team leader" per year group.
"It means everyone takes collective responsibility for the core purpose of what we do, which is teaching and learning," Mr Atwal adds.