Coming to a school near you - Acas

16th September 2011 at 01:00
An '80s phenomenon returns as academy disputes increase

As the number of academies now open breaks the four-figure mark, another less impressive statistic has rocketed as a consequence - the swelling number of school-based employee disputes.

One of the most attractive features of becoming an academy, according to the programme's supporters, is the freedom it offers heads, including the right to set their own pay and conditions for staff. But these changes have led to the reappearance of an acronym that for many will throw up mental images of the strikes of the 1980s.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), which deals with employee disputes and provides advice on HR, has reported a marked increase in cases involving schools.

"It is certainly the case that we are being called into academies far more and seeing far more disputes at academies," a spokesman for Acas said. "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. And he added: "(Academies) like to change the terms and conditions of their employees, as they have more freedom over such things, so this can increase the chance of us being called out to them."

The organisation said it does not keep an official log of the kinds of disputes it works on and was unable to provide specific figures relating to academies, but confirmed it was a growing problem since the Coalition took power.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of education union the ATL and a consultant to Acas, said one of the major issues was that the organisation charged with supporting academies, the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA), does not give headteachers the right advice.

"I have been at spending group meetings where academy heads are complaining about the YPLA, saying they don't have someone at the end of the phone to help them with HR and billing decisions," Dr Bousted said. "Well, that's what you sign up to when you become an academy."

The union leader added that the cost of settling the disputes and buying in advisers could create a problem for the Government. "It has meant the number of disputes has gone up," she said. "School leaders without access to good HR advice are creating poor industrial relations and making bad decisions. It is hugely expensive and an unintended cost of the academy expansion."

That charge was rebuffed by the Independent Academies Association (IAA), which said academies had support from trusts and sponsors.

"Every academy I have ever had anything to do with has had good HR advice," said David Wootton, chair of the IAA and chief executive of the Emmanuel Schools Federation, an academy group with schools in the North East and Yorkshire.

"Academy trusts and the big sponsor chains are able to go and source excellent HR advice. I've not had HR problems in the academies I have worked in and from my knowledge there have always been very good support services."

But David Carter, executive principal of the Cabot Learning Federation, which runs five academies in the Greater Bristol area, said that schools converting to academy status without the support of a sponsor had to buy-in HR expertise.

"New academies have to give as much time, energy and thought to setting up systems for HR and finance as they do to educational achievement," Mr Carter said. "You need high-quality advice at your fingertips. You ignore it at your peril."

Mr Carter said that schools were in "extreme difficulties" if disputes were going as far as Acas. But the rapid rate of conversion to academy status provides opportunities for small groups of schools to club together and pay for a shared HR expert.

"Local authorities are making people with that kind of expertise redundant, so they are out there," he said.

The Department for Education said there were already checks 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.

If that is indeed the case, perhaps Acas will be relegated to the headlines of history, alongside the disputes it tries to end.

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