Fears over impact on children as school leaders say tight budgets are forcing redundancies
- Credit: PA
Stretched budgets are driving up the number of redundancies at schools, leaders say, sparking fears over the impact on children.
As pupil numbers grow, costs rise and support is cut, school leaders are doing more with less, stretching to make ends meet.
Unions have warned that support staff have disappeared in many schools, with cuts moving onto teachers and senior leaders – leading to fears over super-sized classrooms and a lack of support for children.
And they say, as teaching becomes more challenging, they are often in a 'perverse' situation where redundancy is seen as a favourable way for experienced teachers to leave the field.
It comes as accounts of the region's academy trusts, up to August last year, show that the majority have seen an increase in the amount spent on redundancy and severance payments.
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At the Engage Multi-Academy Trust, which runs the Short Stay School for Norfolk and was last month issued with a government notice to improve its financial position, payments rose from £7,000 in 2016 to £280,000 last year.
And at the Inspiration Trust, behind 14 schools in Norfolk and Suffolk, the figure doubled from £193,422 in 2016 to £386,951.
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Spokesman James Goffin said payments would always fluctuate, and that the trust regularly reviewed staffing to ensure 'pupils get the best education possible and to reflect changing demand for different subjects'.
It was a similar picture elsewhere, including at the Wensum Trust, where payments went from £11,100 to £69,821.
Chief executive Gerard Batty said: 'In some cases, it was the case that schools had too many staff members for the number of pupils and in these days, which are a bit tougher than they used to be, we had to make some difficult decisions. There was also an issue that some staff had not responded to the high expectations the trust has and so we parted company.'
At Wymondham High Academy-based ie Trust, restructuring costs rose from £30,478 to £97,697.
Russell Boulton, its chief executive, said with income decreasing it was important that academies functioned within their smaller budgets.
'To achieve this, sometimes staffing changes are necessary which may incur additional costs such as pension, pay protection or redundancy costs,' he said, adding that they resulted in savings down the line.
But it is not an issue avoided by local authority schools. In a survey with 75 headteachers around the county last May – including both academies and maintained schools – nine out of 10 said they were already being forced to cut staff, or would soon have to.
Scott Lyons, National Education Union (NEU) Norfolk spokesman, said: 'The funding crisis is starting to kick in and county schools are under a lot of scrutiny. It's difficult to know the scale, but support staff over the last three or four years have disappeared in many places.'
But he said redundancy dismissals were less common than in the past, with many staff opting to dip out of the career.
'You have plenty of staff taking redundancy because they are unhappy,' he said. 'It's a perverse situation for us because the expectation is that we will fight redundancies. We see a lot of women in their 50s particularly who hoped to stay until they were 60, early 60s, but said they need to go now.'
Jonathan Rice, a Norfolk headteacher and a chair on Educate Norfolk, which represents school leaders, said heads considered all options before restructuring staff – including department resources, energy costs, contracts and suppliers.
But he said those measures only provided so much in savings, and, with staff costs making up a large majority of budgets, there was only so much wiggle room.
'It comes to a point where you have to make some very hard decisions,' he said. 'It looks like numbers on a page, but it's absolutely not. You have to consider the impact on the individual and the relationships between pupils and staff and the impact that will have.
'As everything does, it comes down to what it means for children.'
He said the recent £5m cut to the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) budgets for school clusters in Norfolk would be likely to hit schools hard over the coming months.
As with any story based on figures, there's plenty we don't know.
A handful of the trusts' accounts explained that three or four severance payments made up their figures – and, of course, staff restructuring is always a complex picture.
Several trusts said a particularly high figure could be explained by expansion – taking on more schools and beginning initial restructuring processes.
All of the schools and trusts talked about similar themes: funding cuts and stretched budgets.
And, we all know, wage bills are a significant proportion of costs.
It is unavoidable that school leaders are working with smaller budgets than ever.
Despite claims that funding is higher than ever, rising costs and pupil numbers means that, in reality, schools are still coming up short.
What is perhaps more concerning is the acceptance of redundancies by staff - a disheartening reflection on an increasingly challenging field.