Trade unions have strongly defended the impact that their work has after the Department for Education (DfE) announced a review of facility time in schools.
Facility time is paid time off for trade union representatives which allows them to take part in trade union duties, including negotiating with employers, representing members in grievance procedures, or health and safety activities.
The government is not seeking to change the law on facility time, but says it wants to know how it could be “managed more transparently” and has launched a call for evidence.
In a six-page review document, the DfE alleges that spending on facility time in schools and across local authorities “varies widely”.
It states: “There are examples of excellent practice where facility time is managed efficiently and transparently. There are also, however, examples where costs appear very high and there is a lack of accurate information about how this money is being spent.”
However, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) warned this week that facility time increases productivity and saves taxpayers’ money by preventing conflicts and tribunals, and promoting training and development.
It also stressed that the DfE can only advise schools, and that how they work with unions was a matter for headteachers to decide.
Facility time is provided for in the Employment Relations Act 1999 and the Trade Union Labour Relations Act 1992 and research last year from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) 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, with 16 per cent of union reps saying that less than a quarter of the time they spent on union work was paid for by their employer.
It calculates that for every £1 spent on union facility time in the public sector, between £3 and £9 is returned in accrued benefits.
However, in its review document, the DfE says that some union representatives who are still drawing salaries on the teachers’ scale do not spend any time teaching. It states: “There is evidence that taxpayers are funding a large number of union representatives who are trained and paid as teachers but do not spend any of their contracted time teaching.”
The DfE would like to see a maximum percentage of the pay bill that is permitted to be spent on facility time by schools.
It is estimated that facility time costs 0.14 per cent of the annual public sector pay bill – around £240 million last year. The government is keen to adopt a private sector model, where 0.04 per cent of the wage bill is spent on facility time.
The review also proposes clamping down on allowing facility time for union meetings or conferences – activities not officially permitted under the legislation.
Responding to the review, the general secretary of the NAHT Russell Hobby said: “Trade unions can play a vital role in any workplace. There is strong evidence that they increase productivity and save the taxpayer money by preventing conflicts and tribunals, as well as by promoting training and development.
“This is certainly true in education, where many headteachers will tell you that they maintain constructive relationships with the unions and find them a helpful source of feedback on policies and the views of teachers.
“It is not for the government to specify how unions should organise themselves or choose their representatives. In responding to the consultation, we can reassure ourselves that, although the Department for Education can advise, it does not possess the power to compel. Schools, academies and local authorities will continue to build the constructive relationships that work best for them and the children they serve.”
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “All the evidence demonstrates the importance of facility time in maintaining good working relationships between employers and employee and resolving disputes in the most cost-effective and efficient way.
“We will of course take part in the review to present the excellent case for maintaining facilities time as outlined by TUC research on this matter.”
The call for evidence closes on October 25 and the results are due to be published on the DfE website in December. Visit www.gov.uk/government/consultations/trade-union-facility-time-in-schools-review CAPTION: Time well spent: Facility time allows union reps to undertake duties including negotiating with employers, supporting members in grievance procedures or health and safety work