At the time of writing, it looks very much as if the West London Free School won’t be affected by Wednesday’s strike. Critics of free schools have come up with a number of theories as to why this is. We’ve been accused of only hiring non-unionised teachers, which would have been some feat of telepathy given that it’s against the law to ask prospective employees whether they’re union members. Others have suggested we’ve included a clause in all the teachers’ contracts forbidding them to strike on pain of dismissal. That, too, would be illegal.
The truth is far simpler. I suspect the majority of the teaching staff at the school are members of trade unions — most teachers are — and some of them are even members of unions that have voted to strike. The reason they’ve decided not to is because they don’t want to disrupt the education of the pupils or inconvenience their parents.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure that none of the teachers would strike and sought legal advice as to what we could do to keep the school open. I was shocked to discover the extent to which the law favours the unions. For instance, any employment agency providing temporary workers to cover for striking teachers would be committing a criminal offence — and if the school tried to enlist the help of such an agency we could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting.
We have some wiggle room when it comes to getting existing members of staff to cover for their striking colleagues, but that isn’t practical in our case because we have only eight full-time members of staff and they’re worked off their feet as it is. Local authority-run schools, by contrast, don’t have this latitude because they’re bound by the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document — a set of terms drawn up by the teaching unions which prevent non-striking teachers from covering for their colleagues.
Schools can ask volunteers to cover, but they have to be CRB-checked — and not just any old CRB-check will do. It has to be site specific. That means the pool of potential volunteers is limited to parents who already help out and members of the board of governors. For most schools, that’s not practical because the number of teachers heeding the strike call will exceed the number of volunteers. For the West London Free School, though, it’s a viable option because, at present, the governors outnumber the staff.
I circulated an email asking for volunteers and was delighted when more than half of them said they’d be willing to muck in. Not wishing to be outdone, I signed up to serve as the school secretary for the day. In the event, though, I don’t think we’ll need to call on the services of a single volunteer. The unions are obliged to give schools seven days’ notice if any of their members are planning on not turning up to work and we’ve received no such warning. It may be that they’ve forgotten about us and wouldn’t have told us anyway, but none of the staff have notified the school of their intention to strike either.
Given how difficult it is to cover for striking teachers and remain within the law, I’m not surprised that so many state schools are due to close. I suspect the majority of those remaining open will be free schools and academies precisely because they’re not bound by the Pay and Conditions Document. In Hammersmith and Fulham, for instance, eight of the borough’s 54 schools are definitely remaining open at the time of writing, four of which are either free schools or academies. Not hard to work out why the teaching unions are so keen on state schools remaining under local authority control.
Ultimately, we have our staff to thank for the fact that we’ll be staying open. I haven’t dared broach the topic of the strike with any of them, but I imagine the reason they’re not heeding the call — the ones that are unionised, anyway — is because they’re dedicated to giving the pupils at our school the best possible start in life. That means leading by example. In the case of some children, it’s not that easy to persuade them to turn up every morning and that job would be made even harder if the teachers themselves decided not to turn up.
When you’re cursing the public sector workers who went on strike this week, raise a glass to the staff at our school. For some public servants, duty still trumps self-interest.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 3, 2011