College GCSE students are set to have their exams disrupted after teaching staff announced plans to strike over pay – a move leaders have called “deeply disappointing”.
The University and College Union threatened the bosses of six colleges in the north-west to “urgently raise staff pay” if they want to avoid strike action set to take place on Wednesday, May 18.
This is the same day on which many GCSE students are due to take what UCU calls a “crucial English exam”.
After two years of teacher-assessed grades, because of the Covid pandemic, this is the first summer in which exams are due to be sat.
UCU claims around 900 staff at the colleges will down tools, and over 50,000 students could be impacted.
“Staff have timed their strike to take place the same day that many students are due to sit GCSE English language. If the strike goes ahead, exams will be disrupted,” the union said in a statement.
“From Thursday May 19 staff will also be taking action short of strike, which includes working to contract, not covering for absent colleagues or vacant posts, and not rescheduling lectures or classes cancelled due to strike action.”
The six colleges facing the strike action are: Burnley College; Bury College; City of Liverpool College; Hopwood Hall; Nelson & Colne College Group; and Oldham College.
Some of those affected have hit out at the decision and reassured students and parents that measures are being taken so that exams will be able to continue with minimal disruption.
A spokesperson for City of Liverpool College told FE Week: “We are deeply disappointed that this action has been planned to coincide with this year’s first GCSE English paper.
“However, as we have reassured our students and their parents/carers, we have robust measures in place to ensure there is no disruption to students and their exams.”
Bury College in Greater Manchester said that while it is still open to further discussion with UCU after making what they considered to be a “very fair offer”, it was “disappointed at the planned strike action” and will take action to minimise impact on learners.
UCU is demanding the colleges increase pay by at least 8.5 per cent to meet the cost-of-living crisis.
The union claimed that since 2009, pay in further education has fallen behind inflation by 35 per cent and the pay gap between school and college teachers stands at around £9,000.
“As inflation and energy costs soar, bosses urgently need to raise pay so we can avoid disruption to crucial GCSE English exams,” said UCU regional official Martyn Moss.
UCU highlighted the fact that in 2021, the government announced an 8.4 per cent increase in funding targeted at those in England aged 16 to 17 years old.
This came after £240 million in additional funding was announced in 2018 – suggesting that colleges could pay more to their staff.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said his members are facing a “very challenging economic climate”, off the back of a decade of funding cuts and “enormous inflationary pressures”.
He said the strike action relates to “yet another year in which college funding rates did not increase at all.
Despite this, the colleges affected have already made pay rises through further efficiency gains.”
He added: “I am disappointed at the vote for strike action and particularly the plan to strike on dates when students are taking external exams – many of them for the first time ever, because of Covid.”
Despite the fact students will be affected by the plans, the National Union of Students stood with the UCU, blaming colleges for ignoring staff concerns.
“Employers are saying that they are willing to compromise student learning conditions and staff working conditions all to keep to their bottom line,” a spokesperson told FE Week.
“The same education system that forces students into food banks exploits staff on insecure contracts, who have seen their pensions cut and real-terms wages dramatically slashed in recent years.”
The NUS called on colleges to come back to the negotiating table and to stop “inflicting damage” on education.
“The only way to move forward from this is to meet the demands of striking staff,” the spokesperson added.