Redundancies sour Fresh Start

1st October 1999 at 01:00
Five teachers sacked when their school was closed are challenging their authority, reports Al Constantine.

THE "FRESH START" policy of closing struggling schools and reopening them with new names faces its first legal challenge from five redundant teachers.

The five were forced out of their jobs when Merton Council, south London, shut Watermeads secondary school because of its low morale and poor academic record. Watermeads reopened last week as Bishopsford community school.

But Merton has failed to find the teachers equivalent jobs elsewhere and now faces claims of unfair dismissal at five employment tribunals.

The cases have serious repercussions for the Fresh Start initiative which relies on the "new" schools being free to replace large numbers of the existing staff.

The National Union of Teachers, which is supporting all of the five, says that Fresh Start is mired in legal uncertainty and leaves teachers without the protection of formal procedures for changing from one job to another.

"The Government can't define Fresh Start within its own regulations," said Stuart Cankett, the NUT's regional secretary for West London. "There is no rationale for closing a school then reopening it on the same site."

Watermeads was officially relaunched with the aid of a pound;1.2 million government grant following a summertime shake-up in which all but three members of staff lost their jobs.

Teachers and union officials say the authority has reneged on its redeployment guarantees. But council officials have replied that the teachers failed to ask for alternative work in the borough. They insist that the new appointments at the school were made fairly and through open recruitment.

Teachers made compulsorily redundant are also furious at what they see as the council's failure to honour a "ringfencing" agreement in which internal applicants would be considered first for posts at the new school.

"We were led to believe that we'd be treated fairly," said former head of history Keith Andrew whose teaching was highly praised by Office for Standards in Education and HMI inspectors. "I didn't even get an interview," he said. "All I can say is that whoever got my job must be one hell of a teacher."

Jenny Cairns, Merton's director of education, said that Watermeads had required drastic action. "We were left with no choice but to recommend closure," she said. "Morale was low, achievement was low, expectations were low. Students were disaffected and who wouldn't be under those conditions?"

In 1997, 23 per cent of Watermeads pupils were getting five grades A* to C at GCSE, a figure which fell to 13 per cent this year. By last summer the school was only half full.

The plight of the Watermeads staff is likely to draw increasing attention to the legal minefield presented by Fresh Start closures in which no single body appears to take clear responsibility for getting rid of unwanted staff.

Merton has maintained that the old governing body decided on redundancies, not the governing body of the "new" school. This leaves the five teachers trapped, appealing to a body that no longer exists, says the NUT, which believes that Fresh Start can only work if the governors of the re-constituted schools take responsibility from the outset.

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