Union leaders and education bosses have scrapped talks over Oxford's controversial schools shake-up.

The breakdown comes after a series of heated meetings between the main unions and the county's principal education officer Robert Capstick over plans to get rid of the city's middle schools.

Negotiators said they were not getting answers to vital questions on teachers' jobs and early retirement.

Unison, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers and the National Union of Teachers withdrew from talks but have vowed to keep fighting for job security by approaching councillors directly. They say they have "lost faith" in the local education authority.

Mark Forder, secretary of Oxfordshire NUT, said: "It was all turning into a farce because we were asking the same questions at every meeting but getting no answers.

"We wanted to know how secure jobs were, what happens to staff who get moved to schools they don't want to work in, how they are going to stop the teachers leaving the profession during the transition period, and what plans the county has for those wishing to take early retirement as a result of changes to the system.

"They are very important questions but Mr Capstick just would not give us answers. "The breakdown means there is now no negotiating procedure in place between unions and the LEA which is very worrying. We have lost faith in the LEA and will now be trying to hold talks with the councillors themselves to try to get some answers and assurances."

Staff have been leaving middle schools since councillors voted to change the education structure from three tiers to two last February.

Oxfordshire County Council announced it would give an extra 50 per pupil to help schools cope with the crisis, but the City of Oxford Middle School Headteachers' Association said it was "incensed by the derisory offer". An education department spokesman could not comment directly, but said: "We have a history of good working relationships with teacher unions and established personnel practices which are seen to be both fair and effective.

"The unions have, for many years, had the opportunity of discussing matters of mutual interest with county councillors and officers in the teachers' joint committee as well as other meetings with officers.

"As far as the city reorganisation is concerned, the department's intention is to secure the best interests of the pupils. To do this we need also to safeguard the interests of teachers. This will be best achieved by working closely and co-operatively with all parties." Meanwhile, Martin Thomas, head of Temple Cowley Middle School, has criticised Martin Roberts, head of Cherwell School, following a fax from Mr Roberts to all middle schools saying he would give priority for new jobs to Marston and Frideswide school staff.

Mr Thomas said in a letter to Mr Roberts: "You make it very clear that we are second best to Frideswide and Marston staff."

Story date: April 26, 2000