No ‘minimum safety levels’ for school strikes (just yet)
More on this topic Recent articles
Schools will not be subject to new staffing requirements for a “minimum security level” during strikes, but could face it in the future under plans for new government legislation.
However, Schools Week has learned that the Department of Education is currently revising non-statutory guidance on how schools should deal with strikes ahead of work stoppages that could take place as early as the end of the month.
Ministers will table a bill in the “coming weeks” giving them the power to “ensure that vital public services maintain a basic function and guarantee a minimum level of security during industrial action”.
The government plans to consult and set “minimum safety levels” for fire, ambulance and rail services.
Confusion around the “voluntary agreement” clause.
But ministers say they expect to reach “voluntary agreements” with other sectors, including education – although they are yet to give details of what that means in practice.
The government has announced it will reserve the right to impose future minimum standards for school strikes if voluntary agreements are not reached, leading to accusations of “anti-union saber-rattling”.
Schools Week has been told this does not mean employers or unions set their own minimum safety levels, but no further official details have been released.
Unions would be “bound to comply with this legislation”, with those who fail to do so risk injunctions from employers to prevent strikes, or employers “subsequently seeking damages if they fail to meet their obligations”.
Media coverage based on private government briefings also suggested that workers could be fired if they strike in violation of the new law, but the government announcement makes no mention of such a penalty.
Leaders and trust leaders this week questioned the rationale behind the proposals and how a “minimum level of security” for education could even be calculated.
Plans are “nonsensical”, say heads
Jon Chaloner, CEO of GLF Schools said: “By the time a focus group has been appointed, convened and worked on the content of a ‘minimum service level’ and released it, I would hope that the risk of strikes has receded.”
David Boyle, chief executive of Dunraven Educational Trust, asked: “Can we expect ‘minimum performance’ from government too? Perhaps start with a commitment to creating and maintaining a respected and properly funded public service?
Andrew O’Neill, Headmaster at All Saints Catholic College in West London, said he “would be surprised, given the current climate and the fact that both schools and schoolteachers are paying, to see a situation where Headmasters are threatening to Laying off striking workers hasn’t really been a priority in the last 10 years.”
Sammy Wright, deputy director of Southmoore Academy in Sunderland and former social mobility officer, said the schools “cannot afford to lose staff”.
He added: “It’s nonsensical. I can’t see how the minimum level of service would work. If you mean something where all the kids go to school, then you need full staff.”
Voting for strike action by the National Education Union, the NASUWT teachers’ union and the NAHT principals’ union all ends next week, with late January set as a tentative start date for the NEU’s action.
New strike instructions for principals
School strike action guidelines have not been updated since 2016 and as a result there are some glaring omissions. For example, the law that allows employers to use contract workers to replace striking staff was changed last year, but the guidelines still say it’s illegal.
However, the current guidance offers a useful idea of how the government currently wants managers to respond to strikes. It said the DfE expects school leaders to take “reasonable steps” to keep schools open to “as many students as possible”.
It proposes pooling resources across schools, hiring additional staff such as exam invigilators and organizing “alternative activities”.
If the heads leave themselves, the guidelines say the strikers should delegate their duties to another leader.
When an entire leadership team leaves, governors or academy endowments may ask another staff member — “for example, a senior teacher or a retired principal employed by the school” — to fill the principal’s duties.
The guidelines also do not currently take into account recent developments, such as the Oak National Academy and other online resources, or the Covid-era approach of restricting participation to vulnerable students and the children of key workers.
It is understood that new guidance for school leaders will be published shortly.
Trusts consider Covid-style protocols vulnerable
Academy foundations are already creating their own emergency plans, partly based on pandemic approaches.
Paul Smith, CEO of the White Horse Federation, said that while his trust “absolutely respects the right of teachers and leaders to strike,” it “must balance this with our responsibility to our entire school community, particularly to those most vulnerable.”
“For this reason, we are looking at putting in place Covid-like precautions so that the most vulnerable students have a safe and warm place to come to during a labor dispute.”
Cathie Paine, CEO of REAch2 Academy Trust, said the chain had “already included distance learning as part of our core offering for children who for whatever reason are unable to attend school as it helps ensure the continuity of their learning.
“However, this presents challenges for our youngest children and we recognize that any remote solution would be dependent on the support of the students’ families.”
Agencies say they will not provide strike cover
Despite last year’s change in the law on the use of temporary workers, the potential for strikes in the coming weeks does not appear to have led to an increase in inquiries from supplier agencies. Niall Bradley, chairman of the National Supply Teachers Network, said its members had not reported any requests for strike action.
“There have been a number of comments about people never crossing picket lines, which just reflects the poll we conducted last summer when 95 percent of respondents said they would not cover on a strike day.”
Marios Georgiou, chairman of Step Teachers, said demand was “still high, but it could simply be a continuation of the large number of flu/diseases that we have been experiencing.
“Regardless of the government’s path, as a former teacher and advocate of better pay and conditions for teachers and school support staff, I would not be willing to emphasize these efforts. I would also expect our agency employees to show solidarity with their colleagues.”
Gavin Beart, Reed’s education division executive, said his organization “would not offer a direct replacement for anyone who is on an official strike.”
Minister: “We must also protect livelihoods”
The Supreme Court has authorized a court challenge to the NASUWT union’s new laws. Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer has already said he would scrap the new minimum security level proposals if he wins the next election.
The union congress said the move was “wrong, unworkable and almost certainly illegal”.
NAHT Secretary-General Paul Whiteman said the proposals “appear to be misunderstood and doomed”.
ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said the “threat to impose minimum service agreements was just anti-union saber-rattling and hardly conducive to cordial industrial relations”. But Business Secretary Grant Shapps said the government must not only protect freedom of strike but also “protect lives and livelihoods”.
Ministers have also said they want to discuss payroll records, workload and conditions in the public sector with unions before submitting the records to independent paycheck bodies.
The government claims these talks will help ensure the evidence is “as considered and informed as possible, including reflection on commonalities”.
But they also said inflation-adjusted wage increases would make “fighting inflation harder” and increase people’s mortgages.