Make a bid for independence

30th March 2007 at 01:00
A new union handbook offers advice for teachers moving from a state to an independent school

THERE IS not much Mirella Rios regrets about moving to Brighton College from a state comprehensive last September.

The independent school, on a pleasant campus, has delightful pupils and small class sizes and she is paid pound;3,000 more to teach there than at her previous job. She works longer hours, running three after-school clubs, but her stress levels have dropped because pupil behaviour is so much better.

Mirella, 30, is one of about 1,870 state school teachers who move into the private sector each year, hoping for a better quality of life. But not all independent school workers are as lucky. Unions say some employers, unrestricted by collective agreements, are exploiting teachers and denying them basic employment rights.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers receives more than 50 calls a year from teachers working without proper contracts and job descriptions.

Teachers in the independent sector do not have to have qualified teacher status. But wages can be unfair, the union says, with salaries for a classroom teacher ranging from pound;13,000 to pound;60,000. And an estimated 30 per cent of private school teachers are not signed up to the teachers' pension scheme.

The association is publishing a handbook for the 20,000 of its members who work in the independent sector. It outlines minimum employment standards.

John Richardson, ATL officer for independent schools, says: "In a private school, a parent could come in complaining about their child's grades and the teacher could be hauled across the coals without warning or representation. Disciplinary action tends to happen much more quickly, so teachers can end up being unfairly treated."

Mr Richardson's comments follow the sacking of Peter Cash, head of English at Newcastle-under-Lyme school in Staffordshire. The only publicly cited reason for his dismissal was poor exam results. Lessons at the school were cancelled on Tuesday when 41 members of staff decided to strike in support of Mr Cash.

Peter Walker, an ATL national executive member, says teachers should make sure their school has a clear redundancy policy. "Because these schools are at the mercy of the market, closures and mergers are more likely," he says.

"Around 60 independent schools close each year, so job security is a big issue."

He says most complaints come from teachers in small private schools, although larger establishments "have their moments".

A PE teacher, who has now moved to a state school, told The TES how she had to run sports fixtures and practices four evenings a week and worked one full day at the weekend, all without extra pay.

Another, initially delighted that she would be housed for free on school premises, found the accommodation very poor, with mushrooms growing in the bedroom.

Another, who is moving to a state school, says parental pressure is huge.

"I got tired of pupils scoring 90 per cent in an exam and their parents coming in and asking why their child hadn't got 100 per cent," she says.

"Expectations are so high, and the school has to respond because fees are so high."

She believes her salary to be reasonable but says the pay structure lacks transparency.

The Independent Schools Council, which represents half of private schools, says it rarely hears complaints from teachers at its member schools. Sam Freedman, ISC head of research, points out that although private schools are less constricted than state schools, they must still follow employment law.

And the benefits of working in a private school should not be underestimated. "Many teachers can get up to a 60 per cent discount on their child's school fees," he says.

Ms Rios agrees about the advantages. She says: "I spent four years in a state school and have found the atmosphere here much more relaxed. I'm constantly on the go and it is hard work, but I'm far less stressed. I don't spend my time just getting children to listen."

Even within groups of independent schools owned by a single company, pay and conditions can vary. Cognita, the network of 32 schools chaired by Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, said it did not have "a one size fits all approach".

"When we acquire schools we look to sustain the particular ethos," a spokeswoman said. "We also transfer and accommodate all contractual undertakings with staff."

Protect yourself

Before moving to a private school, the ATL advises that all teachers should:

Have a proper written contract setting out terms and conditions of pay and working hours.

Check school policies on disciplinary, capability and grievance procedures.

Check there is a redundancy policy with proper procedure for pay-outs.

Be paid pro rata if working part-time.

Be clear on the exact scope and nature of any boarding school duties.

Beware of a long-hours culture.

Check the viability of the school. Are pupil numbers going up or down?

Check for a union recognition agreement.

Check maternity, paternity and sickness agreements.

Source: A Guide to Working in the Independent Sector, from the ATL

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