Shades of grey

4th March 2011 at 00:00
As the Isle of Wight replaces its middle and high schools with academies and trusts, those in senior roles - typically, older teachers - fear they will be put out to grass as heads struggle to make ends meet. And, as Hannah Frankel reports, it's not only on the island that experience is becoming an unaffordable luxury.

The education system on the Isle of Wight is undergoing sweeping changes. The local authority plans to close every middle and high school on the island and to replace them with trusts or academies this September.

The restructure means the number of high-ranking roles will be severely diminished, leaving many older, more experienced teachers having to compete with younger colleagues from across the island for a limited number of jobs.

For those who are unsuccessful in landing those roles, the alternatives are demotion or redundancy. As career options go, it is not overly appealing. But the forced move from senior management to classroom teacher could be seen as a great opportunity to develop new or forgotten skills, say those charged with yielding the axe.

Peter Shreeve, 48, sees it rather differently. "It is akin to ripping the bark off a tree and expecting it to grow," says the advanced skills teacher (AST), who is on secondment at Solent Middle School in Cowes. "We have already proved our worth. Now we have the choice of being put on the scrapheap or starting again from the bottom."

Such disruption is not unique to authorities in the midst of restructuring. Older teachers nationwide are finding that they are particularly vulnerable to redundancy. Their only crime is being too expensive.

No authority would admit to it, but schools facing financial difficulties are being forced to make difficult decisions: either they abolish one or two senior roles, or several more lowly ones.

"When comparing a teacher at the top of the upper pay spine with a newly qualified teacher at the bottom, you could be talking about a difference of up to pound;15,000. That in itself can make the decision," says John Howson, managing director of recruitment analysts Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.

"Luxury" posts, such as ASTs, or those with teaching and learning responsibility payments, would be the first in line for review; less so other senior posts, such as head of department, that are part of the "core business" of a school, Professor Howson says.

None of which makes Gemma Brown*, a secondary AST hoping to relocate from the south coast to the East Midlands, feel any more confident about her situation. She is looking for either the same position or for her first assistant head role, but she does not fancy her chances. "I am concerned that with the Government making cutbacks, schools will be looking to reduce their wages expenses and I will be left in a vulnerable position," she says.

Even without the cuts, Ms Brown's insecurity is not irrational, Professor Howson says. As an AST, she is an expensive asset that not all schools will value. It is not like a huge private company where she can be switched to another branch, he adds.

This does nothing to alleviate Mr Shreeve's concerns either. "I have nowhere to go," he says. "My skills don't match that of assistant head. Within the restructuring process my job description doesn't really match that of the head of department and there are no other equivalent posts to apply to. As a school, would you choose me over a younger, less expensive salary?"

For the time being, Mr Shreeve, who has 20 years' teaching experience, is trying to suspend his disbelief. He has taken it on trust that he will at least find a basic classroom job on the island, as promised by the new providers.

But even though there was a round of voluntary redundancies last year, predominantly taken up by older members of staff, there remains a surplus of teachers in a similar position to Mr Shreeve. All hold upper-middle or lower-senior roles. If these older members of staff are forced to return to the classroom for want of a more suitable role, their pay will be safeguarded for three years. Unless they are promoted, their salary could then nosedive.

Another teacher caught in the middle is a head of year in his 50s, also on the Isle of Wight. As his school closes, he has come into competition with senior members of staff from all the other high schools (five in total), plus those who taught Years 7 and 8 in the 14 closing middle schools.

He has experience on his side. Going against him is his age, expense and subject speciality - PE. Even schools "just" looking to recruit a classroom PE teacher may favour a younger, more energetic candidate. Add to that the fact that PE is not a shortage subject, and the outlook seems bleaker still.

Rachael Tippens* finds herself in a similar position. The 55-year-old is head of faculty at a high school in the Isle of Wight, with a salary in excess of pound;40,000. By the end of the academic year, her job will no longer exist.

Her options are stark: she could win another head of department role - unlikely as there is already a head of department in situ, who is both highly competent, young and cheap. Alternatively, she could return to the classroom or accept voluntary redundancy, which has not yet been offered.

"I'm lucky in a way because my salary will be protected for three years and the thought of returning to the classroom does not fill me with dread," she says. "But I have so much experience. It would be a waste of my skills to return to a classroom."

Not all teachers have even these options. Last year, two dedicated ASTs - both on salaries in excess of pound;50,000 - were told they would lose their jobs at a secondary in Swindon, even though funding for their roles would not run out until March 2011. They both felt they had priced themselves out of the market.

Olivia Harper*, 56, another AST in the west country, thought she was going to lose her job in 2010 but - after putting up a sustained fight - has since been assured that it is safe. "I'm not bitter but it does highlight the plight of experienced teachers," she says.

"ASTs are recognised to be good at what they do, but they are more expensive," she adds. "If senior staff are going to be axed to save money, teachers will think twice about going for promotion."

Because teaching salaries have been based on an incremental pay structure since the 1980s, older, more experienced teachers will always be more expensive, explains Martin Freedman, head of pay, conditions and pensions at teaching union ATL. Teachers who acquire points at one school cannot become cheaper at the next, unless they relinquish some responsibilities.

"There have been stories for years about NQTs being given responsible jobs at the expense of older teachers," Mr Freedman says. "The difference now is that money is tighter and cuts need to be made."

Those who lose their job could always move into supply work. Many will simply take early retirement while the final salary pension scheme is still in place, Mr Freedman believes.

Anecdotally, ageism tends to manifest itself at the recruitment rather than the redundancy stage, according to the ATL's members and legal services department. "Put bluntly, younger, less experienced teachers are cheaper than their older, more seasoned colleagues," a spokeswoman says. "No surprise, then, that canny heads with an eye on the school budget tend to go for cost (and youth) over experience. Of course, it is very difficult to prove."

Schools, like any employers, can find subtle ways round anti-ageism legislation. Kate Brandrick, ATL Staffordshire branch secretary, is convinced that the local authority would not and does not make any teacher redundant on grounds of expense or age.

However, the union is concerned about the sharp rise in the number of over-50s who are absent from school due to stress. If they are off for long periods, they can end up facing capability proceedings.

"The stress is often brought on by heads putting more work on to these expensive teachers so they feel they are getting their money's worth," Ms Brandrick says.

Many take early ill-health retirement or simply resign before it gets to the formal stages of capability. In such cases, they will not be recorded by the local authority's human resources team. The statistics are consequently misleading, hiding the scale of the problem.

By law, teachers cannot be made redundant because they are expensive; it is the position, not the person that is under threat if budgets are squeezed. Yet some schools have made dubious decisions based on cost for years, argues John Dunn, chair of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation's education sector. "The pressure on cost is too much for some heads, who are tempted to use cheaper teaching assistants rather than supply staff," says Mr Dunn. "Supply staff are already feeling the pinch. Older members of staff could be next."

Part of the reason there are more senior teachers than roles in many authorities is because this is the first generation of female teachers who have spent their whole careers working, according to Professor Howson. Pre-war, women stopped teaching when they got married, while those in the 1960s left when they expected their first child.

Now, bar a short maternity break, women often return to the classroom. At the other end of the scale, successive teacher recruitment campaigns are piling more teachers into the system, without any guarantee that there are jobs for them at the end of training.

There is some good news. Those born in the late 1940s - the first of the post-war baby-boomers - are retiring, allowing for much-needed natural wastage, Professor Howson adds. But while the birth rate has gone up in recent years, improving prospects for reception teachers, pupil rolls in secondary schools are dropping dramatically in some parts of the country.

The effects are already being seen. In the space of a week in November last year, teaching union NASUWT received redundancy notices for more than 1,200 members of staff.

What the cost-cutters forget is that when experienced teachers leave the profession, they take with them a wealth of experience and opportunities. Mr Shreeve acts informally as the local authority languages adviser on the Isle of Wight, for example. If he is demoted to classroom teacher, he will be too busy teaching and this role is likely to remain unfilled.

The drop in status may also be difficult to manage. Roles could be reversed, with former senior teachers being managed by those who used to be their juniors. "It could affect the confidence and morale of both," says Mr Shreeve.

But Professor Howson warns that alongside the legal implications, the growing trend to replace older teachers with younger models is short- sighted. Yes, more experienced teachers are more expensive, but they often bring with them priceless skills, he points out. But when every penny counts, some schools will be in no position to hang on to the best.

* Names have been changed


- Number of teachers claiming Jobseeker's Allowance climbed from 2,610 in July 2008 to 4,580 in July 2010 - a rise of 75 per cent.

- In the primary sector alone, the number of teachers on the dole has almost doubled in the past two years.

- Figures may mask thousands of qualified teachers working in temporary posts in other industries before they find permanent teaching jobs.

Source: DfE, September 2010. Figures for England and Wales.

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