Like many working in education, Jane* joined a trade union expecting never to need to call on its services. However, when she was accused of unprofessional conduct over a safeguarding issue in her role as a teaching assistant, her Voice membership was vital: “I never dreamed I would have to use it, but the subscriptions were worth every penny.”
As a 2015 survey by the ATL teaching union found, Jane is not alone in needing union support: 22 per cent, or more than one in five, of school and college staff reported having had a false allegation made against them by a pupil during their career in education. While this statistic is worryingly high, it is worth noting that an earlier NUT union survey in 2013 found that nearly 90 per cent of these allegations were dismissed by employers, with the teacher continuing in employment.
There is no requirement for school staff to be members of a trade union, but it is worth remembering that unions can support their members in a variety of disciplinary situations, including allegations of misconduct, grievances raised by other employees and capability or performance-related issues. Each of these can be stressful for someone who is subject to a complaint and, although being a union member will not change the disciplinary process itself, having access to trained, objective support can make it easier to cope with.
The start of the disciplinary process
All schools will have in place a series of policies relating to complaints, disciplinary procedures, grievances and capability. These will be written in accordance with the Acas Code of Conduct that came into force in 2015, so that the disciplinary process is completely fair and transparent for both employees and employers, although sometimes unions can become involved when these processes are not followed properly. When a complaint first comes in, the school will decide whether or not it can be dealt with informally.
The informal resolution of complaints and grievances is commonly the first stage of a schools’ complaints policy as, in line with Acas guidance, “many potential disciplinary or grievance issues can be resolved informally. A quiet word is often all that is required to resolve an issue.” My experience, as a former in-school union representative, senior leader and governor, is that the majority of complaints can be dealt with in this way. The difference between a member of a union and a non-member at this stage is slight, but having access to support can be reassuring for members and therefore prevent unnecessary worry.
In Jane’s case, the issue was not resolved at this first stage of the complaint but instead was deemed to be potential misconduct or gross misconduct. Two weeks before the summer holidays, the complaint moved into the formal stages of the disciplinary policy.
Putting your case to a panel
At this stage of a disciplinary process, the school will have followed Acas procedures and conducted an investigation to establish the facts, which will usually include a formal interview with the employee in question. These facts will be then be presented to the employee, and they will be given the opportunity to present their side of the case in a panel meeting, usually with the headteacher and their human resources adviser.
In cases of misconduct, the panel will usually be chaired by someone other than the person who conducted the investigation. Facing a formal disciplinary process is undoubtedly a stressful and worrying experience; without the support of a union, it may also be a potentially expensive one, if a non-member is forced to seek their own legal advice. As Victoria, a Voice council member, says: “It can be a particularly stressful situation and horrendously expensive for a non-member.
“You don’t get any representation if you are not a member and, while most people think they could represent themselves if it becomes a legal matter, it’s incredibly hard.”
Drawing on support
Employees facing a formal disciplinary or grievance meeting have the right to be accompanied. Union members can choose to attend the meeting with their representative, who can not only support them but also advocate on their behalf.
Jane believes that her Voice union representative, Steve, made a real difference: “Steve was able to tell me things that I would never have known on my own. This included that I was entitled to see the complaint letter, that I should write a prepared statement, advice on words to avoid in the interview, and to outline how the claimants had come across in their dealings with me and their behaviour, which had been quite intimidating. All of this would have been an unknown without him and would have meant that I was not as prepared as I was.”
Without union support, an employee facing a disciplinary process would have to rely on a family member or colleague for support in this meeting. In these cases, the people accompanying the employee would not be able to speak on their behalf and would probably lack experience and knowledge of the process.
As Jane reflects: “The meeting was one of the worst experiences of my life. It lasted an hour and a half with questions constantly being fired at me. Without Steve I would have effectively been totally on my own [because] although I was told I could bring a family member or colleague, they wouldn’t have had the knowledge Steve had or been able to look at the process objectively.”
Thankfully for Jane, it was confirmed after this meeting that her case was closed. Had the disciplinary panel found evidence of misconduct, it would have probably resulted in some form of warning, usually a written warning for first offences. If the misconduct is sufficiently serious it could be escalated to a final written warning, and if gross misconduct is proven it can lead to dismissal, although this is rare. Any sanction applied can be appealed under the terms of the Acas Code of Conduct, and again the employee has the right to be accompanied to an appeal hearing.
From an employer’s point of view, there is no material difference in how a complaint or grievance is handled between a union member and non-union member as they will have to follow the Acas Code of Conduct and their own policies in the same way. For the employee who finds themselves accused of misconduct, union support can save a lot of stress, confusion and potentially money.
Since her use of Voice and the help it provided, Jane regularly tells colleagues about its services – although the hope is that they never have to use them. “I would never want someone to go through what I did,” she says. “But having Voice’s support and someone on my side with the knowledge of how these situations work and my rights and how to conduct myself, made it so much better than if I had been on my own.”
*Jane is not her real name and she is entirely unconnected with the author and his employer
Nic Ford is academic deputy head at Bolton School (Boys’ Division)