Industrial action

Union threatens results days as staff mull strike action

A pay dispute at AQA could see staff walk out over the summer, but bosses say union strike threats are 'needlessly frightening' students and teachers.

A pay dispute at AQA could see staff walk out over the summer, but bosses say union strike threats are 'needlessly frightening' students and teachers.

Students across the country could face delays in receiving their exam results this summer, a union has claimed, as staff at England’s largest exam board are balloted to strike over a pay dispute. 

Unison and Unite unions are rejecting a three per cent pay increase, plus a £500 payment, for staff at AQA – claiming the charity is “failing its staff and students by holding down pay”. 

Workers now have just days to accept the offer, or could face a “fire and rehire” scenario, Unison claims. New data this week showed inflation at 9.1 per cent, a 40-year high. 

Unison said more than 160 AQA staff are now being balloted to strike at the height of the exam marking period this summer.

Lizanne Devonport, Unison north-west regional organiser, said AQA is “letting down not just its staff but students too, by holding down pay. 

“No one wants to cause disruption to students and teachers in the first summer back in exam halls since the pandemic, but the employees feel like they’ve been left with no choice.”

But AQA said “threats of disruption are nonsense” and “designed to needlessly frighten students and teachers”. The board has plans in place to ensure industrial action wouldn’t impact results day, a spokesperson said.

Many of the 160 staff are not involved in setting and marking exam papers, they added.

The threat of disruption follows two education unions – with a joint membership of over 750,000 – vowing this week to consult on strike action in autumn unless the government gives teachers inflation-busting pay rises.

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said a strike would be “unforgivable and unfair”.

AQA said its pay offer comes on top of additional incremental increases for staff not at the top of their pay grade, meaning the average rise is 5.6 per cent – their biggest pay increase for two decades.

But AQA staff say they have had below inflation pay rises of between one and two per cent in recent years.

Staff were told those who do not opt into the changes, which also include a new pay framework, by June will face consultation meetings in July.

AQA told staff this month there could then be “two extremes” – allowing staff to remain on the current pay framework with a 1.67 per cent rise, or “dismiss and re-engage”.

The unions claim this is a “fire and rehire” process. AQA said it has not made any decisions about what to do with staff who choose not to opt into the new framework.

The two-week ballot for strike action closes next week. If staff vote ‘yes’, strike action would take place this summer.

Unite is also considering an industrial action ballot. The union would not say how many AQA staff were members.

One AQA worker, who wished to remain anonymous, told FE Week staff are “in tears” about what to do, as they feel “very let down” with “no option but to accept”. 

Another said: “Many of us have done our jobs for a long time and are dedicated to public service. Exam board employees work miracles silently in the background to ensure that results are issued on time year after year. But we’ve reached the point where enough is enough.”

Another accused the board of being “content to watch its loyal, long-serving employees fall further and further behind on pay to the point where some of us are struggling to survive”.

Devonport called on AQA to “come back to the negotiating table, make a serious offer and stop threatening its dedicated staff”.

The charity saw its income drop by 28.9 per cent in the last financial year. Its net income before investment gains and losses was £2.9 million, down from £20 million in 2020. It equated to an operating margin of two per cent, a “considerable reduction” on the previous year.

While AQA’s charity funds decreased overall by £7.5 million, they still hold £112 million.

“Rather than using its cash reserves to help employees cope with the spiralling cost of living, it has provoked an unprecedented strike ballot,” Devonport added.

An AQA spokesperson said the pay rise was “affordable and higher than many organisations – so it’s disappointing we haven’t been able to reach an agreement with the unions, who don’t speak for the vast majority of our staff.” 

They have “already made exceptional concessions” and “after already exhausting the dispute resolution process, arbitration would only delay things further”.

The exam board, which has 1,200 staff, provides 62 per cent of GCSEs and 45 per cent of A-levels.

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  1. Dave Spart

    “AQA said its pay offer comes on top of additional incremental increases for staff not at the top of their pay grade, meaning the average rise is 5.6 per cent”.

    Is this the employer trying to make their offer sound greater than it is by counting spinal point progression in the ‘average’ figure? If so, that is an utterly dishonest presentation (as brought to us by government spin in relation to nurses’ pay a couple of years ago) and you should make that clear. Even if that weren’t the case, trying to make a 5.6% rise sound generous when inflation is over 9% is taking the biscuit.