Teachers at an independent school in Frensham are taking strike action because they claim they are being forced into taking what amounts to a pay cut.
More House School in Moons Hill, Frensham, caters for boys with specific learning and language difficulties, and is regularly graded ‘outstanding’ at independent inspections.
The National Education Union (NEU) says the school’s governors have proposed changes to the pension arrangements .
It says it is proposed to reduce the school’s contribution to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) to 18.5 per cent.
“Teachers in the TPS will have to fund the difference via reduced take-home pay – in real terms, this equates to a 5.18 per cent pay cut,” says the union.
A strike has already taken place on Thursday, June 15, and more action is planned on next Tuesday (June 27) and Thursday (June 29), as well as July 4, 5 and 6.
One member of staff who joined the picket line said: “We did not strike this week as it is activities week for the pupils, and it’s not fair for them to be affected like that and for their fun to be disrupted.
“There are 475 pupils at this school and on the strike days, there are just 18 teachers. None of us wanted to take this action – about 73 members of staff are affected – but we don’t know what else we can do.
“So far our negotiations have seen a seven per cent pay cut reduce to a five per cent pay cut – but that’s nowhere near enough. Who can afford to take a pay cut?
“The school already has difficulties recruiting teachers in English, science, maths and art, and retaining the teachers it already has, and this is hardly going to help matters.”
The National Education Union claims the governors intend to force through the changes to teachers’ contracts by use of the controversial “fire and rehire procedure, with dismissal – without redundancy pay – of staff who refuse to sign a new contract incorporating the terms.”
It also claims the school says it “has to take control of costs and protect the school’s financial position” but the union says More House’s finances “remain robust with a consistent annual surplus and significant financial reserves”.
The union is calling for a phased withdrawal from the TPS – as has happened at other independent schools – which will help More House plan for its financial future.
“Threatening to reduce teachers’ current salaries and future financial security via pension erosion has already resulted in teachers seeking and gaining employment elsewhere,” the union adds.
Maria Fawcett, the regional secretary of the NEU, said “repeated offers have been made to meet to discuss this dispute with the governors”, but these have been rejected.
Much of these claims have, however, been disputed by More House headteacher Jon Hetherington.
Mr Hetherington said there were 33 teachers working in school on the strike day – not 18 as claimed by the striking teacher – as well as a full department (up to 30) of permanent Learning Development Centre staff.
His statement continued: "Before September 2019, the school’s employer-contribution towards each teacher’s pension was 16.48 per cent of the teacher’s salary. However, the TPS is an unfunded public service pension scheme and subject to increasingly greater spend than income. A revaluation for 2019 resulted in all employers, nationally, having to increase their contribution to each teacher’s pension to 23.68 per cent of each teacher’s annual salary. This has increased our charity’s costs significantly.
"But the national scheme has again been revalued and it is advised that employers’ contributions for teachers’ pensions will rise again to more than 30 per cent of salary, taking effect in September 2024. The TPS is a Defined Benefits Scheme and as such, with each rise in the employer’s contribution there is no improvement in the package received by teachers; the hikes in employers’ contributions are purely to keep the national scheme solvent.
"Meanwhile, our school governors are concerned about the impact on pupils and the charity of what is expected to be, by September 2024, an increase in annual costs to the school of half a million pounds. They have therefore asked our teachers to engage in a period of consultation with school governors to determine whether More House School should withdraw from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, and instead provide to teaching staff an alternative pension scheme with controllable costs for both parties. The governors also offer an option for those teachers who wish, to remain in the TPS by increasing their own contribution to the cost of the scheme.
"The consultation, which is a legal process, remains current, with no final outcome or decisions yet made. The school’s governors therefore do not recognise there is a dispute and are surprised by the trade-unions’ encouragement of industrial action within a school for children with special educational needs."
Mr Hetherington has also challenged the claim that "negotiations have seen a seven per cent pay cut reduce to a five per cent pay cut".
He continued: "I can confirm there is no proposal to cut teachers’ pay and, in contrast to many independent schools in recent, difficult years, More House School has provided an annual pay-rise to all staff every year, and expects to do so again this summer.
"The reference to a financial surplus is false. This error comes from a misreading of the public accounts with someone having confused the value of our current assets (the school’s current buildings) with cash at the bank – in order to realise this value, the school would need to sell all of its buildings, and therefore cease to operate. This is something the charity’s governors voluntary trustees would never consider, unless there was no option but to close the school for good."