Surplus to requirements

20th February 2004 at 00:00
A big drop in pupil numbers means that 41,000 fewer teachers will soon be needed. Nic Barnard reports on the implications for redundancy and redeployment

Everything was going well for Claire Lewis. She'd got a teaching job near her home town of Pontypool, bought a new car, and was planning to marry her boyfriend, Chris. Then came the bombshell. Budget cuts meant that the 25-year-old was to be made redundant after less than two terms. As the most junior teacher at Maendy primary school, Cwmbran, it was a case of last in, first out.

"It was so demoralising and stressful, such an emotional time," she says.

"To think you've worked so hard to get this position and it's taken away from you so easily. I live in this area as well, and it's very hard to get a job here.

"I couldn't consider moving away. I was engaged, I'd been seeing my partner for a long time and he had a job."

But thanks to an informal agreement between heads, unions and Torfaen education authority, Claire was among 12 teachers to be successfully redeployed in 2002 to other schools in the area. She now works at Llanyrafon primary.

The threat of redeployment or redundancy will become an increasing fact of life for teachers across the country as the effect of falling rolls begins to bite. The Department for Education and Skills predicts that schools will lose more than 600,000 pupils between 2001 and 2016 - the equivalent, on today's pupil-teacher ratios, of some 41,000 teachers.

The last time this happened - in the 1980s - local education authorities controlled school budgets and employed teachers directly. That meant they could redeploy teachers to avoid compulsory redundancies. But with the advent of local management for schools, LEAs must rely on the co-operation of heads, and that has led to wide-ranging effects across the country.

In Wales, the National Union of Teachers Cymru looks to the "good services" of local authorities to avoid job losses. For teachers such as Claire Lewis, that meant that she wasn't even formally interviewed for her new position at Llanyrafon primary.

In Newcastle, unions have reached a similar arrangement with the local authority after decades of declining rolls.

But in London the picture is very different. Inner-London teacher Suzanne Foster has just lost her job for a second time. The first time - as a young English teacher in the 1980s - she was retrained on full pay on a one-year course at London university's Institute of Education to teach English as an additional language. But this time she says the authority left her to sink or swim when it decided to close her EAL unit.

Now working in a secondary, she says: "They wouldn't redeploy us at all.

They'd tell us there's a shortage of teachers so we could find our own jobs. Some of us found the stress quite damaging."

Even in the 1980s, redeployment was often a problem. Bernie Regan, NUT executive member for inner London, says many teachers suspected they were not always moved for professional reasons.

"It led to a number of industrial disputes," he says. "There was a feeling that people were being picked on. Or people would read into it that you weren't up to the job and the school had wanted to get rid of you. There was a stigma."

Redeployment didn't go down well with heads either. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, and a head in County Durham in the 1980s, says: "A lot of square pegs got put into round holes. As a rule, schools did not redeploy their best teachers."

Only when redeployed teachers had been placed could heads look elsewhere to fill vacancies.

"From February to May, all the best young graduates were being snapped up by independent schools and other LEAs," says Mr Dunford.

Meanwhile, ambitious young staff would leave because their promotions were being thwarted. School closures throughout the 1990s, as LEAs got rid of surplus places, now mean that even under local management of schools a number of ad hoc arrangements exist across the country.

In some authorities, heads agree to see teachers who are faced with redundancy before anybody else. Others guarantee to shortlist them. But in some authorities, heads will agree only to look at their curriculum vitaes at the same time as those from external candidates.

Newcastle has one of the best records in avoiding compulsory redundancies - an important marker, since the city has been losing pupils for decades, and with no sign of a halt. Reorganisations have often involved closing middle-schools. In a deal with the authority, jobs and salaries have been protected.

But it hasn't been easy for staff. One older teacher talks of the stress of being on the "redeployment merry-go-round" and shifted to unsuitable jobs.

He says: "I've made up my mind to keep working until they put me somewhere I can't cope with or don't believe in, and then I'll resign. But it's sad that having given so many years I can't leave with dignity."

Others have dropped down a scale, or talk about their salary being protected, but not their self-respect. Changes to pension rules mean early retirement is no longer an option for many.

In Wales, the traditionally closer relationship between unions, local authorities and schools means that agreements can usually be reached to avoid compulsory redundancies. Councils will ensure that teachers are shortlisted for suitable vacancies. It's not a guarantee of a job, but it gives them a head start. NUT Cymru has even won employment tribunal cases in which authorities failed to do all they could to find new jobs for surplus staff.

Rhys Williams, a spokesman for the union, praises Torfaen for acting "the way a caring and conscientious authority should act". Some vacancies were created when Torfaen invited teachers over 55 in the borough to take early retirement, with a year's enhanced pension.

For some, it is still a bittersweet experience. One teacher, forced to move schools after 12 years, said it was demoralising and it had taken her a year to feel comfortable in her new school, where pupil behaviour was poorer.

But for Claire Lewis, at least, things have worked out well.

"It's a lovely, warm, welcoming school," she says of Llanyrafon. "The deputy lives in my parents' street."

Oh, yes, and the wedding is planned for August.

Some names have been changed

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