The government believes schools and colleges should remain open for three quarters of students during strikes, leaked documents show, as ministers prepare to legislate for minimum service levels.
But the Department for Education stands accused of acting in “bad faith” and deliberately “collapsing” talks with unions aimed at reaching a voluntary agreement.
Education secretary Gillian Keegan announced last month that she was seeking a voluntary agreement with unions over minimum service levels for schools and colleges. Such a policy would require education settings to remain open to some extent during industrial action.
However The Sun reported last night that Keegan would pursue a legislative route, quoting a source saying she had “tried her best” to avoid the approach.
A discussion document from the talks about a voluntary agreement for MSLs, seen by FE Week, states that the government believes there is a “particularly strong case for ensuring face-to-face provision” for groups of learners making up three quarters of the school and college population.
They include “vulnerable children and young people” including looked-after children and those with SEND, disadvantaged pupils, students due to take public examinations, the children of critical workers and primary aged pupils.
These groups “add up to roughly 74 per cent of school pupils and FE students”. Unions were told to “consider” the DfE’s proposals.
DfE ‘collapsing’ talks in ‘bad faith’
Unions learned of the plans to legislate via media reports last night.
Paul Whiteman, from the National Association of Headteachers’ union, told FE Week’s sister publication Schools Week the announcement had come “completely out of left field” and while unions were “in the middle of talks”.
“We were waiting for our next meeting date. We had met them three times and there was nothing to suggest that they would just collapse it other than the spectre of Number 10 in the background.
“As far as we were concerned we’d had three meetings. We were in the middle of talks, difficult talks yes, but we were acting in good faith. It seems they have acted in bad faith.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, posted on X that “education unions attended every meeting the secretary of state requested. None of us ‘refused’. We were expecting more discussions last week and this week. Instead we get this.”
He added that minimum service levels “are a profoundly illiberal policy by a government that has lost the argument”.
“Nobody wants to go on strike. It is action that is taken as a last resort when all else has failed. But passing a law which effectively removes the right to strike from groups of employees is obviously done in order to weaken unions and the voice of employees over their pay and conditions.”
He said he feared the legislation would be used “to impose a miserly pay award next year which will further erode the real value of teacher pay and worsen a recruitment and retention crisis which is causing huge damage”.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the DfE’s proposals have “potentially far-reaching implications for colleges”, adding that it is “critical that the unique and distinct position of colleges is fully recognised should any regulations be taken forward”.