Pay, Workload and a National Binding Agreement: Levelling up the sector

Report from the Special Further Education committee (SFEC) held on Friday 2nd of February 2024

The SFEC met to consider how to implement an aggregated ballot. This follows conference decisions to take our campaign forward if the employers have not addressed our claim for agreements that are binding on all employers.

This year the sector will receive a further £275m that is supposed to go to staff pay, this is at a time when the cost of living is still biting and the sector is in the midst of a staff recruitment crisis.

The SFEC voted overwhelmingly for a motion to prepare an aggregated ballot to be held in the summer term, if our demands are not met.

This will be the biggest campaign in further education for many years, one that could have the power to level up the sector leaving no-one behind.

This motion as amended was passed:

Winning binding national bargaining: Prepare for an aggregated ballot for 24/25

FEC notes:

  1. The AoC’s willingness to enter into exploratory talks on implementing binding national bargaining.
  2. The Respect campaign this year; eight colleges took strike action.
  3. A minority of colleges implemented the recommendation of 6.5%.
  4. The indicative ballot on national action: 87% of members voting yes, on a 51% turnout.
  5. The FESC voted to prepare an aggregated ballot in 2024.

FEC believes:

  1. Establishing binding national sectoral bargaining is achievable and would be a significant step forward to level up pay and conditions.
  2. To win binding bargaining will require national strike action.
  3. We can win an aggregated ballot
  4. Strike action is most effective at the start of the academic year
  5. The money is there for a significant pay award for all staff. £275m extra is available to colleges for 24/25
  6. The special FESC 2023 voted to wait at least one year before moving to an aggregated ballot
  7. The Summer 2023 FESC voted to prepare for an aggregated ballot in 2024
  8. The case for a binding national agreement needs to be communicated as part of the campaign and ballot
  9. “A new deal” and “a fair deal” are overused slogans
  10. The NEU won an aggregated ballot and pay for all members
  11. We can learn from EIS, they linked their strikes to the elections, raising the profile of education. They won back national bargaining
  12. A mass campaign can firm up Labour’s support for FE

FEC resolves:

  1. Submit an England claim to the AoC on pay and workload, with the focus on our demand for binding national bargaining
  2. Prepare an aggregated ballot in the summer to start after the FESC, to enable strike action in September
  3.  The campaign should be called Levelling up the sector: leave no one behind
  4. Call separate national briefings and produce publicity for all members making the case for binding national sectoral bargaining, workload and pay
  5. The workload campaign will highlight and expand on these demands:
    • Agreed national policy on the delivery of guided learning hours
    • The resourcing of more administration staff
    • Nationally agreed class size recommendations for 16-18 and 19 +
    • A set of agreed workload and wellbeing protocols such as working from home agreements
    • A set of agreed boundaries for contacting staff by email or phone
  6. UCU will campaign for and highlight:
    • A 10% increase in pay. This is a first step to restore more than the 35% cut in real pay for FE staff over a decade.
    • A commitment to close gender and ethnic pay gaps
    • To reduce the use of precarious employment
  7. Launch an initiative aiming to recruit five GTVO volunteer contacts per branch for the duration of the ballot.
  8. Produce regular forum and briefings to equip volunteers how to GTVO
  9. Agree a target for every branch to map their workplace and recruit 15% more members
  10. Produce a timeline for the campaign and ballot admin working back from a first strike in the second week of September
  11. Hold regular forum open to all members to get involved in the campaign scheduled at times when staff can attend
  12. Publicity should include FAQs, stickers, leaflets, and a dedicated website space
  13. Promote equal pay with school teachers
  14. Highlight excessive CEO pay as part of the campaign
  15. Prepare a Parliamentary lobby as part of the campaign
  16. Send MPs a briefing pack asking them to pledge to support our demands

FAQS – Frequently asked questions

What are binding sectoral agreements and why does it matter?

National negotiations covering colleges in England take places at the National Joint Forum (NJF). The Association of Colleges (AoC) represent the employers side and negotiate with the staff unions annually. Agreements are sent out to employers as non-binding recommendations.

Sixth-form colleges, who do a job very similar to ours, have binding sectoral bargaining. That means all employers have to abide by the agreements on pay and conditions. Similarly, for several years as a result of a national campaign, colleges in Wales negotiate nationally and all employers honour those agreements.

If we are to stop the pay gap with schools growing, and that between colleges, it is vitally important that we reform the national bargaining environment to ensure decisions are binding and upheld by all employers. This is what is meant by levelling up the sector and the way to achieve it. We want to ensure every member receives a decent pay award and we stop the race to the bottom on pay and conditions.

The employers agreed to “exploratory” talks as a result of our campaigns and demands. We need to turn words into deeds and it is recognised this will require a big campaign that involves all members.

Is pay, workload or a binding agreement the central campaign?

The three issues are linked. Unless we secure binding national agreements employers don’t have to honour pay awards. We also want the employers to adopt national workload agreements that would cover issues facing every college. That would include class sizes, how contact time is recognised, guided learning hours, admin time, deadlines and how and when the employer communicates with staff such as out of hours emails.

It is not one or the other. The squeeze on staff is less pay, longer hours, and more intense work and less autonomy over how we work. We have to fight back on all fronts and ensure all our employers stick to agreements.

All elements of the claim should be front and centre. Winning binding agreements is key and would be a huge step forward, especially for all those staff in colleges whose managements have not abided by decisions. But it also impacts the more organised branches where they have formed decent local agreements on pay and workload, only to see those eroded due to market conditions.

The union has to make a clear case for why binding national agreements matter. In the last campaign our demands for workload and binding agreements were not amplified, giving employers the wrong signals. That cannot happen again.

Who are we fighting: our employer, the AoC or the government?

Because of incorporation, colleges are individual entities. The AoC is an employers’ body representing the largest group of employers in the sector. We do not directly negotiate with the government despite the fact they legislate for the sector and provide almost all college funds.

Our employers, the AoC and the government could all play a significant role in implementing a new binding sectoral bargaining framework.

The employers could agree to a new binding framework tomorrow and the AoC could be the vehicle to implement that under guidance of the DfE. If our employers are unwilling to do so, then an act of government could impose a new bargaining arrangement on colleges.

We have seen the government step in before. For example, the government recently intervened to bring colleges back into the public sector to scrutinise and oversee funding and spending. Likewise, an instruction from government for colleges to merge set in motion a significant restructuring of the sector almost overnight. The big ESOL campaigns of a few years ago were able to shape government thinking and funding having a dramatic impact quite quickly, from imposing cuts to reversing them.

That is why in our campaigning and publicity we need to apply pressure to our employers and the government with demonstrations, lobbies and strikes. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Will college leaders concede a new binding framework?

There are times when the interests of employers and our members coincide, albeit for different reasons.

The fact the the AoC agreed to explore the implications of our demand for binding agreements reflects the fact that some employers are already looking at how to level the playfield. On their terms they face a staff recruitment and retention crisis pushing wages up between sectors. Many new teachers will look to schools where pay is £9k on average higher. This is coupled with competition between colleges, with some better prepared to pay more or forced to do so due to strike action.

That is why some employers are looking for ways to control wages and break out of a bargaining framework that favours competition.

What can be at stake is not whether we win a new binding framework, but whether one is ultimately imposed on us that is not on our terms. The more our voices are heard and we are visible, the better we will be able to navigate the introduction of a new binding bargaining sector.

Can we campaign during an election year?

If we campaign during a general election we can raise the profile for further, adult and prison education. The EIS were successful at linking their industrial demands during the Scottish elections.

Were Labour to come to power we would be among the first to be knocking at their door.

Can we win an aggregated ballot?

Yes. The e-ballot result last spring showed a majority of members supported a national ballot.

An aggregated ballot could ensure all branches are able to take action together at the same time. This could make a big difference. Issues like pay are national and UK-wide: that is the source of our funding.

Many branches are fairly small, with 100 to 200 members. So in many senses, the task is much easier than in the big universities where UCU has been successful at winning aggregated ballots.

Data from recent reps’ surveys and ballots shows we are not far off securing a technical majority. But if the union made a concerted effort to win an aggregated ballot we could do much better. A campaign by the whole of FE could be a sum of more than its parts. We haven’t had a serious national campaign in a long time.

What we have seen is many branches with historically small dedicated committees, who have not campaigned or been on strike for years, join action and then leap to the fore in recent campaigns, recruiting members and reps and having big lively pickets.

This has been the case in many unions. The junior doctors’ union has flourished in recent years. The RCN nurses’ union never had a strike in 106 years and then had huge member involvement. The NEU planted a flag to go for it and were able to win an aggregated ballot in much more difficult circumstances than than us.

What if my college is not in the AoC?

We want as big a critical mass as possible. Where colleges are not in the AoC, those branches should be supported to put in demands to be included in a new binding sector framework and be covered by pay and workload. Those branches could be balloted in parallel and strike alongside everyone else if our demands are not met.

When would we go on strike?

The union will submit an England claim to the AoC.

We may not need to strike at all. That is, if our employers agreed to an above-inflation pay award, which they can afford, and a national workload agreement covering all colleges. And an undertaking to implement a new sector bargaining framework for all. That is all in their gift.

Otherwise, the union will prepare to win a ballot this side of summer. If we are successful in winning that ballot. Then the motions proposed we strike and march in September. We can exert maximum pressure striking in first weeks of teaching and within the census date of colleges.

Dharminder Singh Chuhan, FEC UK-elected, Sandwell College
Nina Doran, FEC UK-elected, City of Liverpool College
Delmena Doyley, FEC London & East, Croydon College
Peter Evans, FEC LGBT+, Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College
John Fones, FEC South, Bridgwater & Taunton College
Naina Kent, FEC UK-elected, Hackney ACE
Richard McEwan, FEC London & East, New City College
Juliana Ojinnaka, FEC Black members, The Sheffield College
Regi Pilling, FEC Women members, Capital City College Group
Doug Webley, FEC Midlands, South and City College Birmingham
Elaine White, FEC North East, Bradford College
Sean Vernell, FEC UK elected, City and Islington College

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