Trusts running sixth form colleges across England are drawing up contingency plans to keep settings open after teaching staff voted to strike for the first time in six years.
In one trust, managers will take registers and set work if staff walk out as planned later this month.
It comes as the NAHT headteachers’ union, which is currently balloting for strike action, sought to reassure its members it “cannot envisage” asking them to close their schools.
The National Education Union announced on Monday that a formal ballot of over 4,000 staff in 77 sixth form colleges had yielded a ‘yes’ vote of 88.5 per cent, on a turnout of 63 per cent. Support was similar to that seen in an indicative ballot held earlier this year.
This more than meets the thresholds needed to make strike action legal. The first planned day of strike action is November 30, though the union has appealed to the education secretary to make the case for larger pay rises.
Sixth form colleges are standalone 16 to 19 institutions that offer similar provision to school sixth forms. Most are now academies and some are in multi-academy trusts with schools, a different landscape to when staff last took action in 2016.
This means trust leaders face having to plan for strikes at some of their institutions while others remain unaffected. Teachers and support staff in schools are also being balloted by the NEU and NASUWT, but those votes won’t close until the new year.
‘Managers will take registers and set work’
The Tees Valley Collaborative Trust runs Prior Pursglove and Stockton Sixth Form College, set across two sites in the north east of England. Chief executive Joanna Bailey told Schools Week around 45 of its 225 staff are eligible to strike, “but their intentions are not known”.
However, she said the trust would try to keep the sixth form college open in the event of a strike, adding that “managers will take registers and set work as far as is possible.
“We will remain open for students and staff if safe to do so. We will minimise the disruption to education as far as is possible, utilising managers and senior staff.”
The Summit Learning Trust runs Solihull Sixth Form College. Its CEO Vince Green said it “respects the decision of any of our colleagues to vote to strike and then take strike action”.
The trust “will do everything it can to ensure that the learning of our college students is as disruption-free as possible”.
“We have contingency plans in place for however many staff members decide to take strike action, and all include college facilities remaining open with the majority of timetabled lessons still taking place as normal.”
Brigantia Learning Trust, which is responsible for Longley Park Sixth Form in Sheffield, said the matter was “still under discussion”.
“As you would expect contingency plans are beginning to be formulated although at this stage we are still establishing the impact the action is likely to have at the academy,” a spokesperson said.
‘Strike action is always taken with great regret’
Most staff in schools and sixth form colleges have been offered pay rises of 5 per cent, though starting salaries are due to rise by 8.9 per cent this year. Inflation is currently at 10.1 per cent.
The NEU warned this week that sixth form college teachers had seen a “20 per cent cut in real terms pay since 2010”.
Dr Mary Bousted, the union’s joint general secretary, said further below inflation pay increases “are simply unacceptable to our members”.
“Strike action is always taken with great regret, but the sentiment of this ballot result is clear: enough is enough.”
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, acknowledged staff salaries were “being eroded, as energy costs and other inflationary pressures increase”.
But he said the government funded sixth form colleges “at a lower level than schools, universities and other colleges”, and warned they “simply do not have the resources to meet demands for such a high pay rise”.
NAHT chief doesn’t ‘envisage’ closing schools
The NAHT leadership union is currently balloting members over pay for the first time in its 125-year history. If members vote in support of the action, the union will have to decide what form that would take.
In a message to members posted on Twitter, NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman sought to reassure those “worried” about their advice to vote yes.
He said they were in “safe hands”, because “any action we ask you to take will be determined by the national executive committee, which consists of 46 serving school leaders who have the same concerns as you”.
“I cannot envisage circumstances where we instigate action that will call on you to close your school.”
But he said the law controlling industrial action “prescribes a very wide definition of the term strike.
“For instance, your attendance at a rally – even if this left your school operational in your absence – could be defined as strike action.
“We, therefore, have to ask you to vote yes to strike to offer us a wide range of activity that affords you the protection of legal industrial action.”