Downsizing Dilemmas

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 15 May 2017
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

Every conversation I have with school leaders these days is dominated by the budget cuts facing schools. This new harsh reality and the attendant potential redundancies are not only changing the shape of curricula and staff profiles but also fundamentally the nature of our schools. The collective loyalty and shared aspiration of staff and managers are in danger of being lost. For generations of teachers it has been accepted that when appointed, one signed up to the organisational ethic and mission of the school. In return, staff could count on career development and compassion from the school in times of difficulty. The hard decisions around compulsory redundancies obviously threaten that understanding and endanger the commitment and good will of staff which is essential in lifting any school performance towards outstanding. This new tension between financial imperatives and the duty of care for staff comes immediately to the fore with the hiatus around the early retirement scheme, “Investing in the Teaching Workforce Programme”.

This programme aimed to allow up to 120 teachers over the age of 55 to retire early in 2016/17. They were to be replaced by teachers who had graduated since 2012, but the scheme is now facing a legal challenge.

DE has said that it will not take place in the 2016/17 academic year as envisaged. The BBC has reported that a teacher excluded from the scheme, because they qualified prior to 2012, is seeking to have the criteria judicially reviewed. In a statement announcing the decision, DE said: "The legal challenge relates to the scheme stipulation that applications for replacement teaching positions will be open to recently qualified teachers." "The applicant believes that this is unlawful age-related discrimination." The hearing is expected to take place in May 2017.

This reversal will affect about 100 senior teachers who had been told they could retire under the scheme in June. They will now be told that is not possible. Additionally, schools that were planning to recruit younger teachers to replace them from September 2017 will now stop that process.

The scheme was originally announced in 2015 by then education minister John O'Dowd but was delayed due to lack of agreement with the teaching unions over the criteria, including the definition of the term "newly-qualified". His successor, Peter Weir, announced that a revised scheme would go ahead in June 2016 but the scheme has now been suspended until at least the 2017/18 school year.

Older staff, who had given a lifetime of service to our schools willingly stepped up for early retirement, sure in the knowledge that they were making space for fresh, talented staff in need of jobs. To have made the emotional adjustment to move on to the next stage of life and leave the classroom is not a small thing. It means both a letting go of the effort to stay “up to speed” and also an acceptance of being an older person. To have made that journey and then to be told that one must go back to the previous state is really bad people management by our system.

There is, of course, a downside for schools losing their most experienced staff. NAHT report that the number of teachers retiring early has been steadily increasing over the past four years, which is a worrying trend. It would appear a variety of factors are contributing to this; workload, stagnant pay and increasing bureaucracy.

It has also meant a dramatic drop in the number of teachers with specialist knowledge, with only four in ten physics teachers holding a qualification above A level in the subject they teach. The status ‘qualified teacher’ does not actually relate to subject knowledge but rather the knowledge of teaching methodologies.

At the recent NAS/UWT Annual Conference, Chris Keates, General Secretary, outlined some of the personal costs to teachers and schools of the current downsizing.

“The Government now expects people to work longer, but the irony in teaching is that those with the experience and expertise are in too many cases being hounded out of the profession because they are older and more expensive. Older teachers are disproportionately facing being placed on capability procedures, report being denied access to professional development and are often put under intense pressure to leave their job. The losers of course are not just the teachers themselves, who often are forced out of a career they love, but the pupils, who are losing experienced, specialist teachers. The lack of action by the Government to promote respect and dignity for working people has led to a culture of disrespect and discrimination in schools”.

On the other hand, research in the USA outlined in a working paper (abstract; PDF) by Maria Fitzpatrick and Michael Lovenheim finds that offering early retirement to experienced schoolteachers doesn’t have a negative effect on students’ test scores, and in some cases leads to an improvement. Teachers who are near retirement may put forth less effort than younger teachers or may be less well-trained in modern, potentially more effective, pedagogical practices. This may be particularly true for those teachers who desire to retire early. Alternatively, if productivity is negatively correlated with disutility from teaching, the teachers who choose to take up early retirement may be those that are least productive. Family and personal circumstances also influence the labor-leisure decision in ways that lead to ambiguous predictions of the effect of early retirement on achievement. Finally, principals and administrators may respond to large losses of experienced teachers, e.g. by decreasing class sizes, changing the assignment of teachers to students or purchasing additional non-teacher resources.

So where should government place itself given these conflicting pressures on the teaching workforce? Making it easier for teachers over 55 to access unreduced pensions and allowing personal choice to inform end of career plans is certainly the most sensible option. That way those who need to go will and those who wish to stay can. Schools will use the cheaper, younger newly qualified teacher pool to fill the gaps created and the profession can refresh itself without micro management by government.


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This article is correct at 15/05/2017

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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