Explainer: What are the GDST strikes?

The GDST strikes began last week, with the trust’s teachers planning many more days of action. Who is involved, why are they happening and how long will they last?

Who is involved in the GDST strikes?

The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) is a group of independent girls’ schools in the UK, comprising 23 schools and two academies in England and Wales. It educates 19,000 girls aged three to 18. The National Education Union (NEU) is the largest single union in the independent sector with over 32,000 members in 1,700 schools. In a postal ballot last month, 95% of GDST independent school teachers who are NEU members voted in favour of strike action, on a turnout of 84%. A total of 1,500 teachers were expected to take part in the strikes, which are the first strikes in the GDST’s 149-year history.

Why are the strikes happening?

The GDST is planning to remove its teaching staff from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS), as the increase in costs (a 43% increase in employer contributions to the TPS was implemented in 2019), has had a “severe impact” on their expenditure. The trust said it will cost them an extra £6m each year. The NEU claims the move would leave staff facing, on average, a minimum 20% reduction in annual pension payments. The GDST “has no justification in its plan to slash the pensions of its teaching staff,” according to Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU. The union has also claimed that the proposal “would leave trust teachers on significantly worse terms and conditions than colleagues teaching at local state schools”.

On 10 February, over 1,500 members of the NEU took strike action in the GDST (© Matt O’Brien)

Is the GDST alone in wanting to leave the TPS?

Not by a long chalk. As of 23 November last year, 287 independent schools had either already left the scheme or had notified the Department for Education of their intention to do so imminently, according to a freedom of information request from pensions provider, Broadstone. On top of that, 16 independent schools had requested phased withdrawal from the TPS, closing the scheme to new staff members while allowing existing staff to remain. The NEU claims that “members in over 60 other independent schools have successfully defended their hard-earned pension through collective action, up to and including strike action”.

How have the trust responded to the strikes?

The GDST said it is “disappointed” by the strikes, having asked the NEU not to call for strike action “prematurely”; it began consulting on the TPS proposals in September 2021, with a final decision on how to proceed not due until the last week of February. Cheryl Giovannoni, CEO of the GDST, said that the trust “care deeply” about their teachers and “understand the strength of feeling” on the issue. She said the trust would not have put forward proposals for an alternative plan unless they were “absolutely necessary to support the long-term sustainability of the GDST family of schools”. Teachers may get “similar returns (or more) from the GDST Flexible Pension Plan compared with the TPS”, said Giovannoni.

How long will the GDST strikes last?

Six days of strike action were initially announced. The first took place in England and Wales on 10 February, while a further five are slated for 23 February, 24 February, 1 March, 2 March and 3 March. Resources have been drawn on across the family of schools to ensure missed lessons are made up at other times. The question on the strike ballot – “Are you prepared to take part in sustained and discontinuous strike action in furtherance of this dispute?” – means that further dates cannot be ruled out.

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