If you were to take media reports at face value you would think that schools were protected from the cuts being imposed by the Coalition government. The reality is very different.
While the money allocated to local authorities for distribution to school budgets seems likely to be protected from cuts, there is a whole ranges of services which are in real and imminent danger.
Local councils hold some money centrally which they use to maintain support services which could not be afforded by individual schools and are not needed in equal measure by all schools. The level of need in each school is usually related to the type of children they have on roll.
My own authority, for example, has a flagship service for deaf and hearing impaired children and for Gypsy, Romany and Traveller education. They also have a visually-impaired team and a teenage pregnancy advice service. These rely on the central budget to let them employ highly specialised teachers, teaching assistants, admin staff and so on.
This budget is being cut in a number of ways and on a scale which puts jobs and services at risk. The services are those which mostly support the poorest and most disadvantaged young people.
Council funding is being reduced as part of the deficit reduction plan. Leeds has had to find £1.9m from the budget for support services to schools. So far they have made this saving by filling only essential vacancies and cutting non-staff costs. At the same time they, together with other councils, are starting redundancy consultations with staff and unions.
Second the previous Government had already announced that they would not renew a number of funding streams which are used to support schools. In particular local authorities will from 31 March 2011 no longer receive the national strategies money which employs teachers who advise schools on literacy and numeracy.
As a result many councils have issued redundancy consultation notices. We are told that the money is not being removed but being devolved to schools so they can decide how best to use it. The assumption is that many of them will “buy back” the service from their local council.
The third factor which will produce cuts in central services is the expansion of the academy programme. Every school which becomes an academy leaves the local authority and takes with them their bit of the central budget for services to schools.
Whether or not they need or use the services for SEN, bilingual or sensory-impaired children, they take the money back.
As the new Tory academy project is focused on the more ‘successful’ schools with more privileged intakes. this will mean more money for schools who need it less and huge cuts in the services available to children in schools with the most need.
At a recent gathering of NUT branch secretaries evidence of the impact of these three factors was already beginning to emerge. A survey of centrally-employed members found that current plans for job cuts included the following:
Durham: 63 Education Development Adviser posts to be replaced by 28 posts with staff having to apply for their own jobs. Bolton: 11 posts including Educational Psychologists. Kent: Secondary adviser posts cut from 40 to 13. Somerset: 8 Soulbury posts to go out of 9. Merton: all secondary consultant posts to go, primary posts to reduce from 5 to 2. Havering: 25 posts out of 40 are at risk. Wigan: 86 posts to go.
It will not be easy to fight these cuts. The workers involved are not the ‘shock troops’ of the education unions. Employed in small teams, working often in isolation and with individual schools, they generally have no record of militancy.
In addition they will have an image amongst school staff as the advisers and inspectors who impose the government’s educational dictats on the rest of us with all the workload pressures that entails.
The defence of these jobs will require a broader political campaign amongst staff and parents in schools to assert the importance of the services they provide. Councils can be lobbied, demonstrations and rallies organised and strike action can be moved up the agenda.
The sacking of subject and curriculum advisers when the work they do is still required is likely to mean more work for existing teachers in schools. Already in a number of areas “good practitioners” are being told by Heads that they will be expected to lead training and share their practice with other schools.
There will also be areas where centrally-employed education workers have more confidence. The NUT is, for example, holding an indicative ballot in opposition to cuts in central services for schools in Islington.
Perhaps the most worrying sign of all is the approach taken by Bury. There the council has issued section 188 dismissal and re-engagement notices to all its workers (except staff directly employed in schools) in order to force staff to accept new contracts on significantly worse pay and conditions.
The new contracts would freeze all pay increments (that’s the automatic progression up pay scales) for three years and impose an additional three days of unpaid leave per year on all workers. Effectively the council would close its buildings for an additional three days and refuse to pay its staff.
These measures are a quick way to save millions of pounds at the expense of council workers and service users. There are already indications that other local councils are copying the Bury approach, in particular Luton. If it is allowed to succeed or go unchallenged it will be leapt upon by councils desperate to make huge savings quickly.
As far as I know indicative action ballots are being organised in Bury. All unions representing council staff in any area faced with this level of threat should be balloted as soon as practically possible. The trade union movement should treat an attack like this as an immediate threat to their members nationally and aim to kill it at source.