The government is pushing ahead with legislation to limit the impact of strike action in colleges.
New regulations have been proposed that would allow colleges to require staff to work during strikes so priority groups of students can still attend classes.
Education secretary Gillian Keegan first floated minimum service levels (MSL) last month and opened talks with unions for a voluntary agreement that would avoid legislation.
However, “not enough progress” was made, according to DfE, so powers under The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 will now be used to bring in regulations to limit disruption in education on strike days.
The department said that ten days of strike action by the University and College Union (UCU) and nine days by the National Education Union (NEU) took place in further education in the last academic year.
Further education and sixth form colleges will be in scope of the new rules, as well as the specially designated institutions.
Independent training providers and specialist post-16 institutions are not in scope as they are deemed at low risk of strike disruptions.
Keegan said: “Keeping children in school is my number one priority. Last year’s school strikes were some of the most disruptive on record for children and parents with 25 million cumulative days lost, alongside the strike action that badly affected students in colleges and universities.
“We cannot afford a repeat of that disruption – particularly as young people continue to catch up from the pandemic.
“Whilst I know many schools and colleges worked really hard to keep children and young people in face-to-face education during strikes, we must make sure that approach is applied in every school, in every area of the country.”
Colleges choose minimum staffing levels
Under the proposals, college leaders can choose to issue a work notice ahead of a strike which would list the staff needed to deliver a minimum level of service.
Staff that can be named in a work notice can include leadership, teachers and lecturers, teaching assistants, safeguarding leads, administration staff and other non-teaching staff.
The regulations will not tell college leaders how many staff they must direct to work during strikes, but they will specify which groups of students should be protected from disruption.
Priority student groups
The department is proposing that young people defined as vulnerable, students due to take exams and assessments (excluding apprenticeship end-point assessments), and children of critical workers be prioritised.
Students who are looked after by their local authority, are aged 25 and under with an EHCP, have a child protection or child in need plan, and/or receive special educational needs support will count as vulnerable under the MSL regulations.
Also on the priority list would be students due to take exams or formal assessments in the same academic year strike action takes place. This includes assessments for GCSEs, A levels, T Levels and other vocational and technical qualifications.
Apprentices however will not be included in this priority cohort. This is because strike action has a “limited risk” to the delivery of end point assessments.
The final group of students to be prioritised under MSL rules will be children of critical workers, such as health and social care workers, transport workers and certain education roles.
But for colleges to prioritise the attendance of those students, it is proposed that both parents or guardians must be critical workers, or that a single parent in a household is a critical worker.
For students not prioritised for attendance on a strike day, the DfE said it would “expect every effort” to provide teaching remotely.
There are also proposals to require colleges to implement rotas so that all students can receive some face-to-face education during strike action lasting five college days or more.
The same groups of priority students have been suggested for primary and secondary schools, and a separate proposal in the consultation would prioritise the attendance of all primary school pupils during a strike.
The consultation also floats introducing minimum service levels in universities for the first time, though that would be subject to a further consultation.
The consultation closes on January 30, 2024.