Minimum service levels are set to be introduced in schools and colleges, the government has announced.
The Department for Education said the proposals will “put in place protections for children, young people and parents to ensure education can continue during any future strike action”.
Education secretary Gillian Keegan has written to union leaders inviting them to discuss proposals on a voluntary basis in the first instance.
DfE said “she is clear” that should a voluntary agreement not be reached, the government “is committed to using powers” granted through the controversial Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act introduced earlier this year.
This would lead to a consultation and is “expected to include a range of models” for minimum service levels in education.
It follows over 10 days of strike action in schools this year in a dispute over teacher pay and working conditions. Government says 25 million school days were lost cumulatively.
Strike action in colleges has been increasing in recent years. Staff at 32 colleges have voted to strike this autumn through the University and College Union. It follows the Association of College’s staff pay recommendation of 6.5 per cent, mirroring the offer made to schoolteachers.
The government first proposed minimum service levels last year. It has consulted on introducing them in ambulance, fire and rail services.
Keegan announced earlier this month that the DfE also intends to consult on minimum service levels in universities.
Today she said: “We cannot afford a repeat of that disruption – particularly as schools and teachers continue to work so hard to help children recover from the pandemic.
“I am asking the teaching unions to engage with us and agree to put children and young people’s education first – and above and beyond any dispute.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this is “nothing more than an attempt to distract from her department’s own shortcomings”.
He added it was “unimaginable that there will any agreement over legislation that involves removing the basic rights of employees. Industrial action is only ever taken as a last resort, when all other options have been explored.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said his membership body will engage with DfE to help ensure that colleges can achieve a voluntary agreement on minimum services during strike action.
He added that if the DfE was to move ahead with regulations, the AoC will push to ensure that the “specific circumstances” of colleges are covered and that there aren’t “overlapping rules resulting from their dual rule in education of young people under the age of 18 and higher education provision”.
Jenny Arrowsmith, partner and head of educations at Irwin Mitchell, told FE Week that the consultation is likely to mirror the consultation for ambulance services.
“The employer must identify who is needed to carry out a minimum level of work during industrial action – this should not be more than is reasonably necessary,” she explained.
“The employer must then inform the union of who this is and the union must, in response, take reasonable steps to ensure that those persons do not participate in the strike. The consequences of the union allowing those members to strike is significant both for the union and its members. All strikers, for example, would lose the usual unfair dismissal protection.”
“The indications of the higher education consultation suggest this may include a proposal that it should allow for all marking to be done and for undisrupted teaching of specific groups,” she added.
UCU has been approached for comment.