Don’t cover teacher colleagues on strike, support staff told | Tes

A union representing school support staff is advising members not to provide supervisory cover for teachers on strike.

The advice from the Unison trade union comes as school leaders are preparing for a series of day-long teacher strikes starting next Wednesday, February 1.

It jars with guidance issued to schools last week by the Department for Education, which said schools can use support staff to provide “cover supervision or oversee alternative activities” during the strikes.

But Unison, whose members include teaching assistants, said staff “should not be moved from the duties they would normally have carried out” to provide cover and “frustrate the industrial action of colleagues”.

Unison’s advice adds that members “should not take on any additional responsibilities being given to them directly as a result of other unions’ industrial action”.

And, it said: “Support staff should not be expected to provide cover for, or take classes, where this would normally be done by teachers who are taking action.”

Unison adds that this “includes any staff employed as either high-level teaching assistants or cover supervisors”.

When approached about the apparent contradiction, Unison’s head of education, Mike Short, said: “Schools shouldn’t usually be asking support staff to cover when teachers are absent. And certainly not expecting them to do so on a strike day.

There is already a legal requirement that lessons in maintained schools are taught by someone with qualified teacher status.

However, asked by Tess whether Unison’s advice also included cover supervisory work, Mr Short confirmed it did.

The Unison guidance urges members who are “under pressure to provide cover for striking colleagues” to contact their Unison representative.

Support staff members in the NEU teaching union in England failed to meet the threshold for strike action in ballots held simultaneously with teacher members. Unison has not held a ballot after accepting a pay deal last November.

Tess asked lawyers at Browne Jacobson LLP where leaders stand when caught between the guidelines.

They said it depends on the circumstances and the usual duties taken on by individual support staff.

For example, the request would be reasonable if a teaching assistant has historically been asked to cover classes in circumstances where there have been unexpected absences, and a headteacher can show that it is within the remit of their expectations or the remit of what you would usually expect a TA to be done, the law firm said.

However, if the cover is for one-to-one support, for example, or if the individual usually provides a very specific role, it will be harder to suggest that providing that cover is reasonable and within their usual remit, they added.

Employers should be ‘mindful’ of what they ask of staff

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaderscalled on employers “to be mindful not to ask members of staff to go beyond their normal contractual obligations, nor to place unreasonable expectations on members of staff not taking part in strikes”.

He added: “If they are required to take on excessive additional workload, this could exacerbate ill feeling and prolong disputes.”

The NAHT school leaders’ union pointed out Tess towards its advice to leaders published last week, which said that employees “cannot be required without their consent to undertake work beyond their normal duties”.

The prospect of Unison members refusing to cover for NEU teacher members will need to be factored into heads’ risk assessments, they added.

The NEU teaching union announced last Monday that teachers would go on strike from February 1 after 90 percent of teacher members voted for strike action in a ballot turnout of 53 percent.

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