Strike action has been avoided at an independent school in Cheshire after governors dropped plans to exit the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS).
In a letter to parents, the chair of governors for The Grange School in Hartford confirmed the board’s decision, just one week before staff were expected to take six days of industrial action from Tuesday 25 February to Thursday 12 March.
The National Education Union (NEU), which had threatened the industrial action, confirmed its decision to rescind the notice. NEU regional secretary Peter Middleman said the union’s action committee had received a letter from the school’s legal team confirming the board’s U-turn.
Karen Williams, chair of governors, wrote to parents: “We must be clear that the initial problem which led us to initiate the consultation remains. The cost of teachers’ pensions is one of a number of significant financial risks facing The Grange and other independent schools, which we must address collectively as a whole community.
“Maintaining the current level of employer contributions means that we need to reconsider how to afford the additional costs of £340,000 per year that this entails.”
Contributions to the pension scheme have increased for schools from 16.5% to 23.6%, after the Treasury changed the rate at which liabilities for public sector pension schemes are calculated.
We hope that this decision means we can move forward with our shared ambitions for the future prosperity of the school community
Governors chart next steps
Speaking to IE in January this year, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association (ISA) Neil Roskilly said it was “absolutely right” for nearly 100 small independent schools to quit the pension scheme because of the changes.
“It’s absolutely right for schools to withdraw, otherwise they would have no choice but to pass the increased contribution on to parents with excessive fee increases. Smaller schools would be particularly hard hit,” Roskilly said.
He said schools had to balance a “duty to staff” with a duty to their institutional financial future and the recruitment of new students.
“I’d be very surprised to see strikes,” Roskilly added. “There is an element to this threat which is just a union being a union”.
Although strike action is rare in the independent sector, the imminent threat of disruption appears to have forced at least one school to rethink its finances.
Williams informed parents: “In the light of this decision, the governors and leadership team now need time to reflect on the best way to manage the budget, controlling operational costs while doing as much as possible to reduce the impact on our educational offer.”
“We acknowledge that this has been a very difficult period for all staff, both teaching and non-teaching, and also that it has been unsettling for parents and pupils. We hope that this decision means we can move forward with our shared ambitions for the future prosperity of the school community,” she added.
Read more: Teachers’ Pension Scheme – remain or leave?
‘This is a tax take for the government’
Middleman said despite the strike threat, the NEU had “sympathy for the institutions faced with rising TPS costs”.
“We understand the difficulties [pension contribution increases] can cause and other independent schools are facing the same dilemma, which is about a 50% increase on pension contributions since September 2018. Some will find it more affordable than others. We don’t blame institutions, we blame government,” Middleman explained, adding: “We have sympathy for the institutions faced with rising TPS costs. TPS is in rude health. This is a tax take for the government.”
We have sympathy for the institutions faced with rising TPS costs
According to the school’s most recent annual report, it employs the equivalent of around 135 full-time teaching staff. The union confirmed it represented the majority of teachers at The Grange School.
Middleman said a resolution to the dispute was hampered because the school’s governors do not recognise the NEU. A number of independent schools do not recognise unions.
“This case reinforces the need to have contact with union representatives. Attempting to bypass the union and consult directly with teaching staff has led to this problem and mitigated against an earlier resolution,” Middleman said.
“We are keen to develop a relationship with independent schools; we don’t want to cause trouble. We can bring a single voice to discussions and our expertise. Where a union is involved, resolutions are reached quicker,” he continued.
Middleman also confirmed that the union had seen a boost to its membership from teachers from the independent sector because of the TPS changes.
“Teacher’s legitimately recognise that these unnecessary contributions are being passed on to them. There is a common misconception that teachers in the private sector are different from teachers anywhere else. It doesn’t mean teachers in independent schools are in receipt of special treatment,” he added.