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Lambeth College strikers return to work, but war of words continues

Striking staff at Lambeth College in London have returned to work after more than a month of industrial action, but the two sides are still locked in bitter dispute.

The college said it was “dismayed” that three days of intensive talks with officials from the University and College Union (UCU) ended without agreement, and accused staff of making a “calculated move” by returning to work to ensure they receive their holiday pay for the summer.

But the UCU accused principal Mark Silverman of making “extraordinary threats” to cut courses for disabled students and foreign students learning English.

The industrial action was the longest in UCU history.

In a letter to the union, seen by TES, Mr Silverman warns if there is “any serious risk” of significant industrial action in the autumn term the college is likely to decide not to provide courses in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) or LLD (Language Learning Difficulties).

He writes: “We are simply not prepared to enrol students in these areas unless we can assure them of a qualitative outcome. We will recommend they go to another college. If we do not run the provision all staff in those areas will be at risk of redundancy.”

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt (pictured) urged Mr Silverman to step back from his “appalling threat” and negotiate.

“I am stunned the college is prepared to use some of the most vulnerable people in society to try and force decent hardworking staff to accept its changes,” she said.

UCU members at Lambeth College started strike action on 3 June over changes to staff contracts. Staff starting after 1 April this year have different contracts, which UCU claims will leave them with bigger workloads, less sick pay and fewer holidays.

But the college says the changes are necessary to gradually bring about modernisation and help it reduce its “unsustainable” budget deficit of £3.5 million.

The UCU said more than 100 of its members were out on strike, out of a total teaching staff of 300 at the college. A spokesman for Lambeth said some areas of the college were "badly impacted" by the six weeks of action, including ESOL and LLD courses and some areas of science.

During this week’s talks, the college said “limited progress” was made, including agreements by the UCU to accept the new contracts and the additional hour of teaching each week.

However the union would not accept a reduction in annual leave from 60 to 50 days, a move which the college said is “essential” if it is to deliver a more flexible curriculum.

Mr Silverman said the strike had achieved “absolutely nothing” in terms of changing the college’s resolve to deliver improved outcomes. 

“In the short term, it has caused the setback for some learners, which I deeply regret and which should have been avoided,” he said.

“Union members have simply put themselves before the students. UCU needs to understand that it is contributing to the potential decline of the college and damaging its future and with that, putting everyone’s jobs at risk.”

Ms Hunt said the union was also dismayed the talks failed to resolve the dispute.

“There is now a clear window of opportunity that both sides should take to try and break the impasse,” she said.

“We are ready to talk, despite the quite extraordinary threats made by principal Mark Silverman to refuse to recruit in areas of provision which the local community depends upon.”


Related stories:

Strike action looms at Lambeth College in row over staff contracts - May 2014

Lambeth College staff plan 'indefinite' strike action - May 2014

Lambeth college defends principal's pay rise amid staff strike over working conditions - June 2014

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