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Minimum service levels put heads in ‘impossible position’

Introducing minimum service levels in schools would leave leaders in the “impossible position” of being expected to enact legislation that will cause “irreparable harm”, a heads’ union has warned.

ASCL has published its formal response to the government’s consultation on MSLs, which would enable schools to issue work notices to staff during strike action in order to continue educating certain groups of pupils.

The Department for Education set out its options for MSLs in education last November before union talks on the matter had ended, angering leaders and prompting some heads to say they would refuse to issue work notices. Its consultation closes next week.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said the new legislation would “help us protect children and young people’s education whilst balancing an individual’s right to strike”.

But ASCL said it was “concerned that the regulations will place school leaders in the impossible position of seeking to maintain good employee relations across their team whilst being expected to enact legislation that will cause irreparable harm”.

“It will be the headteacher who will be called upon to make these impossible decisions and live with the consequences.”

The regulations would also “disproportionally affect the ability of school leaders to take industrial action, potentially to the point where this will completely remove their right to strike”.

“For a school to open there will always be a need for a school leader to be present, and in many situations the regulations would lead to the same individual (the headteacher) being instructed to work.”

The union said this was “incompatible with the secretary of state’s stated intention to ‘balance the rights of workers to strike with a child’s right to receive an education’.”

Fears over impact on SEND staff

The laws also stand to “disproportionally affect those staff with very specific responsibilities”, in particular those who support children with special educational needs and disabilities.

The government’s consultation proposed two options for MSLs.

Proposal one would involve prioritising attendance for “specific groups of children and young people”, including those with SEND.

Proposal 2 would involve the same approach as proposal 1 for secondary pupils, but would include all primary pupils.

ASCL warned the imposition of work notices and MSLs would “damage industrial relations at every level from individual schools to multi-academy trusts to local authorities, and at the national level with the English, Welsh and Scottish governments”.

Schools are also “complex ecosystems where trust and good will are a key part of their operation”.

“This is even more the case in the current climate of acute recruitment and retention difficulties, with teachers, leaders and support staff all going far beyond their contractual obligations to ensure schools function effectively.

“The government must not underestimate the damage that could be caused by the loss of this good will.”

Union warns MSLs will make teaching less popular

The regulations are also “likely to add to the increasing unpopularity of teaching as a career for both graduate entrants and existing employees,” ASCL added.

“The pay, conditions and working life of teachers and leaders do not currently present an attractive option. Restricting the ability of the workforce to bargain collectively for improvements will not improve matters.”

Leaders are also “already severely overworked”, and there is “simply no slack in the system for additional work”.

Carl Parker, ASCL’s head of industrial relations, said MSLs in education would “do much more harm than good”.

“These regulations effectively remove the right to strike for some staff and will damage relations among others.

“As well as being profoundly illiberal, MSLs risk exacerbating the recruitment and retention crisis by watering down workers’ rights and further erasing the good will that exists within the profession.”

‘A grudge-bearing attack’

In its response, the National Education Union warned “the likely impact is that industrial relations will deteriorate, teacher and support staff pay and working conditions will decline, the recruitment and retention crisis will worsen and pupils and students will be disadvantaged”. 

The NASUWT teaching union said the law was a “grudge bearing attack by the government on the fundamental rights of teachers and other working people to protect their rights at work and to secure decent living standards”.

The law would also “place trade unions and employers in an invidious position and liable to burdensome and costly administration and litigation”.

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