Headteachers forced into a corner over job cuts

6th November 2015 at 00:00
Rising numbers of support staff are being made redundant – but teachers won’t be spared the axe

The number of school support staff facing redundancy has surged – and teachers will be next, education unions have warned.

With school budgets already squeezed and an average of 8 per cent more real-terms cuts expected by 2020, headteachers are being forced to make some very difficult decisions about job losses.

The ATL and Unison unions both report a sharp rise in redundancy casework for their school support staff members since July.

And according to Unison, life is getting tougher for those who remain. In a number of schools, the posts of teachers who resigned at the end of the summer term have not been filled, increasing the workload for others.

“More teaching assistants are picking up high levels of work and covering for teachers who haven’t been replaced,” Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, told TES. “They are doing more and more.”

The ATL and teaching union Voice report that teacher redundancy casework is also on the rise. A “perfect storm” within the profession could be on its way, according to ATL national official Peter Morris.

“It’s almost inevitable that teachers will face the financial squeeze and, ironically, at a time when there is a shortage of teachers and a rise in pupil numbers,” he said.

The busy season for redundancy work is usually after Christmas, but casework has already begun piling up this term. Education legal support service Edapt, an alternative to teaching unions, reports a significant rise in teacher redundancies this autumn compared with the same period last year.

After years of budget cuts, many headteachers have finally hit a wall, according to Brian Lightman, general secretary at the Association of School and College Leaders.

He said job cuts were now being made across all groups – including teachers, middle managers and senior leaders.

“In the early stages of these budget reductions, some schools have been somewhat protected by some contingencies, but these contingencies are being rapidly worn down,” he said. “Now their only option is to make redundancies.”

See p40 for tips on balancing budgets

‘It was like we never existed’

“It feels like your whole world has been ripped from your soul, especially if you love the environment in which you teach,” says Bob Groome, a former design and technology teacher from Norfolk.

“My old school was like a second home. You are with the kids more than your own family.”

Mr Groome was told before Christmas last year that he would have to leave at the end of the summer term, after a drop in pupil numbers. But he says that the approach taken by the headteacher, who was obviously also “deeply affected” by the situation, made things easier.

“He told us early to give us the best opportunity to get a new job,” Mr Groome says. “It really was like a family at the school. I have been very fortunate.”

Sue Jackson, a former pastoral manager in an Essex secondary who was made redundant in July, was not so lucky – she was only told the news in June.

“We would have had more luck finding work in other schools if they had told us earlier on,” she says. “It was a very upsetting process and the headteacher never spoke to us. She distanced herself from it. It was like we never existed.”

How to ‘minimise the pain’ of redundancy

As a former sixth-form and FE college principal with decades of experience, Stephen Grix is well practised in making tough staffing decisions. Mr Grix, now chief executive at Mid Kent College, says there are ways to “minimise the pain while maximising the gain”.

Start by drafting a realistic three-year financial forecast – articulate your key assumptions and then scrutinise them.

Determine the overall savings target and the timeline for making those savings. If you opt for staff cuts over a longer period, go for the biggest hit possible in the first year.

Gain formal approval from governors and agree the principles – such as minimising compulsory redundancies – to underpin the process before consulting staff.

Consult with unions, communicate plans to staff and write to external stakeholders. Brief all staff on the same day and work hard to get the message right. The real challenge is taking remaining staff with you, showing that the organisation does care about them.

Take tough decisions swiftly to minimise the pain for staff. The best way forward is speedy action, with constant and clear communication from visible senior staff.

A headteacher’s view

Theresa (not her real name) is a London primary headteacher who had to make 17 redundancies over the summer. She believes honesty is the best policy and told her staff annually that budgets were tight.

“It’s good to be open, because we are not wishing to make these decisions,” she says. “Ultimately, our responsibility is to balance the budget and provide the best provision for the pupils.”

Theresa was faced with a potential deficit of £216,000. The only way to achieve a zerobalance budget was to let lots of staff go.

“The last day of term was the most horrendous day of my career,” she says. “I had to meet everyone individually to tell them whether or not they had a job.

“It was like a doctor’s waiting room. Normally on the last day of term we would get together and have cheese and wine, but instead people were crying.

“I hope I don’t have to go through it again, but I know that we can only have staff members that we can afford.”

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