Head of science group says union strike restrictions can help keep schools open

Steering rules are part of a range of measures to protect schools from disruption, Richard Thomas says

The head of a group promoting higher science standards says rules restricting strikes and industrial action can help keep schools open.

Professor Richard Thomas, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, chaired a ministerial roundtable on school trade unions and trade disputes in 2016 which said: “What is most likely to disrupt learning, test outcomes and staff morale is disruption from industrial action or action deliberately designed to interfere with schools.”

Dr Thomas, who conducted an independent review of modern science standards in England two years ago, told the Guardian: “That’s the role that schools have: it’s part of a range of measures to protect schools from disruption.”

Separate regulations obliging schools to give full time jobs to caring relatives are believed to have helped schools stay open during strikes by the teachers’ union NASUWT.

Pupils have been working under much shorter school days in new academies, with half of the existing state schools shortening their school day by at least three hours. Many have also moved towards some form of parent-teacher committee, which has also been at the heart of academies.

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Thomas said: “I think both of these things have helped, in giving schools the authority to say, ‘I’m going to be cutting down on strikes and I’m going to be making sure we have a settlement in place that will be sustained’.”

Some governments including Labour tried to restrict freedom of action after the 2005 general election. The Conservatives have not, though the national fund for schools’ academies now favours academy trusts and allows them to draw up their own collective agreements to break away from union deals.

However, a government-commissioned report by the Institute for Government last year said ministers would have to justify any change. “Although the freedom of action is often associated with industrial unrest, it is also a popular democratic choice,” it said.

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