DfE launches attack on trade union facility time


As government advice urges headteachers to cut back on the costs of facility time, unions argue that the practice saves schools money. Pete Henshaw reports.

The government has opened a new front in its fight against the teaching unions after calling for an end to full-time union reps in schools.

It says that trade union representatives should be able to carry out their duties in one day a week or less.

Trade union reps in schools are entitled to paid time-off from teaching, known as facility time, in order to carry out duties such as negotiating with employers and representing members in grievance procedures.

However, new advice from the Department for Education (DfE) says that no teacher funded by the taxpayer should work full-time on trade union issues.

Teachers’ unions have rejected the suggestion, arguing that research shows facility time saves schools money by helping staff to work efficiently, reducing conflicts and improving health and safety.

The DfE, however, says that the interpretation of facility time “varies widely”, and wants to stamp out the practice of some representatives spending 100 per cent of their time on union work.

The advice, which is not legally binding, also recommends that union representatives should spend the “majority” of their time on their school-based jobs and be held accountable for the trade union duties carried out during facility time.

It says that there are “too many examples of costs appearing very high and little accountability or transparency” and calls on employers to “review and reduce costs where possible”.

It states: “While fully recognising that trade union representatives are entitled to reasonable time off in appropriate circumstances, the Department for Education expects all trade union representatives to spend the majority of their working hours carrying out their school-based jobs. 

“We believe that it should be possible for local union representatives to fulfil their main union duties in one day a week or less.”

The advice comes after a consultation on facility time last year and the DfE says its proposals have “widespread support”. However, unions may question this claim given that only 247 people responded to the consultation, just 13 per cent of whom were headteachers.

Schools minister David Laws, said: “Teachers are paid to work in the classroom. Clearly effective representation of teachers can play an important role in our schools, but taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be funding trade union representatives who spend little or no time actually teaching. This advice has widespread support from the sector and will provide greater clarity, transparency and accountability about how this money is used, and how it benefits schools.”

Teaching unions hit back this week, arguing that research shows the value of facility time. 

Indeed, a study last year from the Trades Union Congress claimed that union activity saves the public and private sector £2 million a day due to better trained workforces, safer workplaces and fewer employment tribunals or disputes.

The report, Facility Time for Union Reps, argues that much of the work of union reps takes place in their own time. It calculates that for every £1 spent on union facility time in the public sector, between £3 and £9 is returned in accrued benefits.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “Once again the DfE is ignoring the evidence. Numerous studies have found that trade union representatives help schools save money by boosting teachers’ skills, helping staff work as efficiently as possible, minimising the turnover of teachers and support staff, reducing conflict at work, and improving health and safety.

“The DfE advice is a one-size-fits-all approach and is simply not workable. Local authorities and schools already have flexible, reasonable and regularly reviewed arrangements to ensure staff are released for trade union work at times which fit their local circumstances. 

“As the DfE advice itself acknowledges, trade union facility time accounts for less than 

0.1 per cent of most local authorities’ school and schools’ pay-bill.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “Studies show that facility time for trade union duties represents excellent value for money for individual employers and the wider economy. We believe that schools will continue to recognise both their statutory responsibilities and the value of facilities time, which encourage the early resolution of disputes and avoids the costs associated with escalated disputes.

“The advice recognises the role that local authorities take in managing a central fund which academies may buy into. We believe that this is the most efficient method of managing local trade union facility time in the education sector.

“This guidance, while confirming schools’ and local authorities’ statutory responsibilities, is unnecessary. Decisions on arrangements are best decided locally between schools, local authorities and recognised trade unions. The vast majority of schools will recognise that this is in the best interests of good education practice.”

The advice is at www.gov.uk/government/publications/trade-union-facility-time-in-schools


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