Three senior national officials at one of the country’s largest teaching unions have been serving lengthy suspensions following disputes with the organisation’s top team, Schools Week can reveal.
In one case, a senior staffer at NASUWT has been off work for more than a year and a half, while two others were suspended around a year ago.
It is highly unusual for someone to be suspended for as long as a year and a half
The disclosure comes as Chris Keates prepares to stand down as general secretary of the Birmingham-based union after 15 years at the helm.
Her decision follows months of turmoil for the union, which has faced repeated and sustained industrial action by its own staff over changes to their pensions and a series of internal disputes over the way it is run.
It also follows the revelation in an employment tribunal earlier this year that Richard Harris, a former regional officer and GMB rep, was suspended for almost a year before he was finally dismissed in late 2018. The NASUWT was ordered to reinstate him in January.ir
Multiple sources within the union have now come forward to speak of a “culture of fear”, in which those who disagree with the leadership have found themselves disciplined and even suspended.
Schools Week reported in January that the NASUWT had been forced to reinstate Harris after an employment tribunal found it was “likely” he had been dismissed for whistleblowing.
The NASUWT fired Harris last October after he accused Keates of lying, wasting police time and “acting like a despot”.
It has now emerged that three other employees were suspended over the past two years.
One senior official was removed in autumn 2017 and remains on suspension pending a hearing. Schools Week understands they were suspended after making a complaint about the union’s leadership.
Two more officials were suspended last summer and their suspensions are both believed to be in relation to the same dispute.
Shah Qureshi, head of employment and professional discipline at law firm Irwin Mitchell, said that while there is “no strict time limit” on suspensions, it was “highly unusual for someone to be suspended for as long as a year and a half”.
“If something like this went to an employment tribunal, it would be looked at in terms of what a reasonable employer would do, and one and a half years is certainly not reasonable,” he told Schools Week.
Although the law on suspensions is vague, guidance provided by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) states that a suspension “should be kept as brief as possible and regularly reviewed to ensure it is still necessary”.
During suspensions, employees “will usually still be expected to be contactable during normal working hours and available to attend any meetings and/or interviews that are necessary concerning the investigation”, the guidance states.
They must also request annual leave if they want to go on holiday.
However, suspended employees are unable to go to an employment tribunal unless they are actually dismissed, meaning their ability to challenge long suspensions is limited.
In total, Schools Week spoke with five officials from the union who all reported concerns that dissent and valid complaints about the inner workings of the union were being met with disciplinary action.
Schools Week put the specific allegations to the NASUWT. A spokesperson said: “It appears that Schools Week has been provided with information about internal matters within the NASUWT which is at best misleading and at worst inaccurate.
“In these circumstances it would be inappropriate for the NASUWT to respond to any of the issues raised.”
Keates wrote to union staff on Monday to announce she will not seek re-election to her role, adding her decision to stand down had been a difficult one.
“I have had a lifetime of being involved with this great union, 15 of them as its general secretary,” she said.
“However, I do feel the time is right for the NASUWT to have a general secretary to take the union forward into the next chapter in its history.
“I will, of course, want to say much more to you all at a future date but until that time I look forward to us continuing to work together in the interests of our members.”
Keates has served as general secretary of NASUWT since 2004. She was previously its deputy and assistant general secretary and a teacher in Birmingham.
No election has been called to replace Keates
The NASUWT faces questions about its failure to call an election for a new general secretary before Chris Keates’s term came to an end.
In an email to staff announcing her resignation, Keates said a timetable for an election would be published “after the July executive meeting”, and announced she would continue in her role in the interim.
However, according to law, Keates’s five-year term has already come to an end.
The 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act states that unions must re-elect executive members, presidents and general secretaries every five years. There is no provision in the 1992 act for general secretaries to serve in an interim capacity.
NASUWT’s own rules require the union to give branches advance notice of an election so they can nominate candidates, but to date it has not done so.
The exact date of Keates’s last re-election in 2014 is unclear because she was unopposed and therefore no election was held. However, her coronation was announced in the media on June 3, meaning her term would technically have come to an end on or before that date this year.
Schools Week understands the union has been warned by members and officials since last year that it needed to call an election, but failed to do so.
The union did not respond to requests for comment.
No let-up in pensions dispute
NASUWT union staff have vowed to continue with industrial action over pension changes, despite the impending change of leadership at the union.
Staff at the organisation belonging to the GMB union have been locked in a bitter dispute over proposed changes to pensions, which will see staff pay more into their pensions, but get less out once they retire.
Staff took three days of strike action last year in response to the changes and have also been working to rule in protest.
In an email to members, the GMB said the announcement of Chris Keates’s impending departure as general secretary “does not alter anything in respect of why the GMB are in dispute with the NASUWT”.
“We need to take the strike action on Friday July 5 to remind the national executive of the NASUWT that we are still in dispute and that we are still not accepting the vastly inferior pension we have had forced on us.”
NASUWT was accused of hypocrisy after it used a law it opposed to initially block further strikes by GMB members.
Under the 2016 trade union act, unions wanting to base industrial action on a ballot more than six months old now have to get agreement from the employer.
The NASUWT refused to allow an extension of last year’s ballot to nine months, despite having campaigned against the 2016 act, and having previously relied on old ballots for industrial action by its own members.