Calls for academy arbitration rise four-fold
For the first time there is statistical proof of a problem critics had long predicted. The number of employee disputes in academies so severe that they need the country's arbitration service to settle them has risen nearly four-fold in the last year, a phenomenon many are linking to the Government's reform programme.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), which deals with employee disputes and provides advice on HR, has said it has been called in to mediate over employee disputes in 38 academies during the last school year, up from just 10 the year before.
The sharp rise in disputes has been linked by heads and unionists to the vast expansion of the academies programme. Academies have become a central plank of education secretary Michael Gove's school reform agenda, with more than 1,400 now open, up from just over 200 two years ago.
But as scores of schools have taken up the offer from Mr Gove to convert to academy status, observers point out that they lose the vital support services that were previously offered by the local authority, not least HR support.
The statistics were obtained by Jon Richards, national secretary for education and children's services at Unison, which believes the number of disputes in academies is only likely to increase as more schools convert. "There are an awful lot of issues around equal pay schemes and areas contained in the Education Bill, such as giving teachers anonymity if they are accused by a pupil, which will require very skilled people to deal with," Mr Richards said. "There are a host of problem areas stacking up. The expansion of the academy programme is creating new employers who quite often don't know what they are doing."
Acas told TES it had been called in to settle disputes in academies "far more" than it had previously. "This could be down to the fact that there are more academies than there were before, so we are more likely to be called into them," a spokesperson said. "(Academies) like to change the terms and conditions of their employees, so this can increase the chance of us being called out to them."
This stance was echoed by Jeremy Rowe, headteacher of the recently converted Sir John Leman High School in Suffolk, who warned that schools had to be very careful not to rush into decisions when transferring to academy status. "Personally, I think you would have to be bonkers to move away from the existing pay and working conditions as it will lead to difficulties," he said. "But if you are going to, you should always have good HR support in place, otherwise it's like driving a car without insurance."
Often newly converted academies are still able to buy back services from their local authorities, but Unison insists that in many cases local authorities are unable to provide support due to government cuts to their budgets.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of heads' union the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was essential for academies to source quality HR support. "Some converters see local authorities as having good HR and they are buying that back in," he said. "But in other areas, where the local authorities have refused, or are unable, to offer the support, they have had to go out into the open market and have sometimes struggled to find adequate HR services."
The Department for Education said checks were already in place to prevent disputes over the terms of teachers' pay and conditions. "Academies are reliant on attracting good teachers and so their pay and conditions are in fact often better than in maintained schools," a spokesman said. "Any teachers from the predecessor school can transfer their existing pay and conditions under the Tupe (transfer of undertakings) regulations."
Critics of the Government claim that if pay and conditions are genuinely better in academies, it is likely there would be fewer disputes instead of a four-fold rise. As such, it will be informative for the debate over academies to look again at Acas's figures in the summer of 2012. If they are up again, the Department can expect to come under increased pressure to reassess exactly what checks it has in place.
DISPUTES REFERRED TO ACAS
200910 - 10
201011 - 38
1,419 - Total number of academies as of 1 November.