More pressure on the independent sector from unions

Seldon calls for urgent new thinking from unions and the government

More co-operation and partnership to benefit pupils


The relationship between teaching unions and the independent sector has never been particularly good. It  grew  even more tense recently with the  strikes over Pensions.

It is often forgotten though that unions have a growing foothold in the independent sector.  The growing power of trade unions within independent schools  took a significant step forward in 2008   with  the decision  of one of Britain’s biggest private school charities the United Church Schools  to recognise five national unions. The official recognition by the Trust meant the pay and conditions of teachers at 10 schools  would in future depend on the collective bargaining skills of the unions. The  Association of Teachers and Lecturers    is the  dominant union among private schools representing approximately 160,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in both sectors.  ATL has over 80 recognition agreements with private schools – representing a sizeable minority. The biggest is with the Girls’ Day School Trust, which has 30 schools. The ATL also negotiates teachers’ pay for the City of London Corporation’s schools, which include City of London School for Boys – one of the most favoured institutions for investment bankers’ children.  Private school analysts and unions estimate that a little over half of private school teachers are union members. This is much higher than the economy’s average, but much lower than state schools’ 95 per cent membership.

Independent schools, of course, have to compete for teachers with the state sector.  Indeed one of the major reasons school fees regularly rise well above inflation is that independent schools must ensure that their teachers salary packages, perks and pensions are competitive. Unlike the state maintained sector, there are no national pay and conditions in the independent sector so pay and conditions vary enormously from school to school. The majority of independent schools are members of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS). However, unlike the state sector, there is no obligation for them to join. Benefits in the maintained sector accrue on the basis of ‘continuous service’, regardless of changing schools, but this does not occur in the independent sector. It has  also  been rumoured  that staff in private schools could be locked out of  the TPS altogether.

Half of independent school teachers said they would not apply to work in a school which did not give them access to the TPS, according to a survey from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).   In addition, more than a quarter said any pension scheme offered would have to be good value for them to join a school.  Responding to ATL’s annual independent schools survey, over one in four teachers said they would leave teaching if independent school teachers are excluded from the TPS, and one in five said they would return to work in a state-funded school. A teacher in London said: “Maintenance of the TPS in the private sector is essential for the survival of independent schools.” The ATL joined other unions to strike over plans to cut their pensions.

It was against this backdrop that Dr Anthony Seldon, one of the best known Heads in the independent sector, delivered a conciliatory speech at the ATL conference on 12 November. Certainly as a high profile Head in the independent sector , Seldon is aware he has to tread carefully as many of his teaching staff are union members.  He praised the contribution of teaching unions in the 20th century, with particular reference to the achievement of ATL. (Both former Labour and current Coalition Education Ministers might beg to differ)  He described how, in four principal areas, school policy in the 20th century was governed by ‘low trust’: it was government directed, hierarchical, exam-driven and had an oppositional model of government/union relations.   He said that the 21st century will, he hoped, be characterised by ‘high trust’, with government easing back and leaving schools far more autonomy, with power being much more diffused to teachers, students and parents within the schools, with an education-driven rather than an exam-driven system, and with collaboration rather than confrontation being the norm between unions and government.  Specifically on teaching unions, he said that both government and unions needed to change their approach if the 21st century was to see a much more productive relationship, with schools and children as well as teachers benefitting to the full.  The world’s most successful schools systems, he said, as in Alberta and Finland, exhibited high levels of cooperation and partnership.   He spoke about the international summit on the teaching profession in New York in March 2011, attended by ministers of education and union leaders from leading nations, which concluded that the most effective teaching systems will exhibit high trust and respect between government and teaching bodies.  Government, he said, needs to be much more respectful and consistent in its consultation with professional bodies representing teachers. It should recognise that teaching is not a well-paid profession and that the incentive of a good pension at the end of it is an important attraction into the profession.  It should recognise that teaching bodies have a serious and sustained contribution to make. Equally, he said, the unions themselves need to act like professional bodies all the time, and be like the BMA rather than trade unions representing workers who are not professionals.  They should recognise that the threat of striking is not helpful and diminishes the status of the profession.  In the new model, unions should be equally concerned for the rights of children and indeed parents as those of teachers.  They should be seen to be more on the side of rooting out poor professional practice which damages schools, children and teachers, rather than be defending them.  They should be at the very forefront of developing subject specialism and new thinking about teaching quality in the light of the digital revolution.  They should be far more abreast of developments in positive psychology and well-being, not only for teachers but also for schoolchildren.  The unions should either amalgamate, or at the very least cooperate far more in providing government with a single voice representing the profession at its best rather than competing to outdo each other in benefits achieved. (the same argument of course could apply to the independent sector).  The new model, Seldon said, should be based on high trust and respect, and recognise that in the 21st century government and employers are not seeking in general anymore to abuse or exploit teachers, but are seeking to develop them in a responsible way.  But new thinking must come from both sides, from government as much as the unions themselves.

Seldon is keen to build bridges not just with the unions but with maintained sector schools as well. However there is some resistance from other Heads in the sector who believe that they have a moral duty to look after the interests of their fee paying parents, rather than any  duty  to  support state schools.


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