Teachers at a Glasgow independent school plan to strike at the end of the month in protest of an alleged “fire and rehire” scheme which they say is forcing teachers to accept inferior pensions.

Members of the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS) and The NASUWT unions at Hutchesons’ Grammar School are planning strikes over a combined five days at the end of May and into June.

The NASUWT has scheduled four days of strikes on the calendar, on Tuesday and Wednesday May 30 and 31 and Wednesday and Thursday June 7 and 8.

Meanwhile, EIS members will go on strike on Friday, May 19, before joining their NASUWT colleagues on the 30 and 31.

The Glasgow school, which includes First Minister Humza Yousaf among a number of famous former pupils, has rejected the unions’ allegations, saying that all but one staff member agreed to the pension change.

Unions claim teachers signed contracts ‘under duress’

The unions claim that the school forced teachers to accept new contracts with downgraded pension plans under threat of firing.

The NASUWT alleged that members received notice of their termination at the end of March and offers to return on the condition they accept the new pensions.

In a statement announcing the ballot results, the union claimed that some members indicated on their re-employment contracts that they were signing “under duress”. The NASUWT said that the new scheme offers no guarantee of the level of income teachers would receive in retirement or any index-linked rises to their pension pots.

Hutchesons’ School ‘strongly rejects’ accusations

In contrast to the union’s stark accusations, a spokeswoman for Hutchesons’ said that parents and staff have shown support for the new pension plan.

She said the decision to withdraw from the Scottish Teachers’ Pension Scheme (STPS) and replace it with an alternate system came after a 60-day consultation. Only one staff member rejected the new pension, she said.

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“The Board of Governors strongly rejects accusations of ‘fire and rehire’ with inferior pension provision.”

The new pension scheme offers an employer contribution rate of 23.8 per cent, she said. According to the Scottish Public Pension Agency, the STPS contribution rate is 23 per cent for the 2022/2023 year.

The spokeswoman added that there are other features which the school believes make the new pension a better deal for staff.

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“It also offers double the Death in Service benefit from three times annual earnings under the STPS to six times annual earnings and it gives three years’ income protection in the event a teacher is unable to work for an extended period of time, which is not available under the STPS.

“In addition to this, a teacher’s remaining pension pot is paid into their estate when they die, a benefit not available under the current STPS and it offers flexibility of an early retirement age, should they wish, and to choose their own contribution rate, whether the same, more or less than under the STPS.”

Strikes could be mutually damaging

Negotiations between the union and the school are ongoing. The spokesperson said that the school was told strike action would go ahead unless the Board of Governors agrees to return to the STPS.

They added that strike action could undermine one of the school’s main objectives in withdrawing from the STPS.

“We have made it clear to both the unions and their members at Hutchesons’ that strike action could lead to a fall in school roll which could lead to job losses, which is exactly what the Board hoped to avoid when it took the difficult decision to withdraw from the STPS.”

Strong support for strikes among union members

Despite the school discrediting the accusations, both unions carried out strike ballots which resulted in a clear demand for industrial action.

With 86% turnout, EIS members at Hutchesons’ voted 78% in favour of a strike; among NASUWT members, 87% were in favour.

A briefing sent to members by EIS leadership claimed that the benefits presented by the school aren’t as straightforward as they appear.

The EIS warned members that because the pension plan proposed by Hutchesons’ is based on private investment – and not a statutory plan underwritten by the UK Government – there is more risk involved. 

Although the school has promised a certain contribution rate, the EIS said that market volatility means teachers might not know what their pension pot is actually worth until the day they retire. 

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A spokesman for the EIS also said that moving away from the government’s pension plan could leave room for the school to change its terms and contribution rates later.

EIS General Secretary Andrea Bradley said that the school needs to return to the government scheme for the benefit of teachers.

“The management of the school must now listen to the school’s teachers and reverse its damaging programme of fire and rehire, and reinstate teachers on their previous terms and conditions, including their pension provision.

“Without this, teachers at Hutchesons’ will have inferior terms and conditions compared both to other independent schools in Scotland and, also, teachers in the state sector.”

Meanwhile, the NASUWT meets Friday and Saturday for its annual conference, and the concerns at Hutchesons’ are expected to feature prominently in their discussions. The conference agenda includes an emergency motion in support of Hutchesons’ teachers and a campaign to outlaw “fire and rehire” policies.

Government keeping its distance

Unions have made calls for First Minister Humza Yousef, who attended Hutchesons’ along with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, to intervene on behalf of teachers.

Although the Scottish Government does not have any power over independent school policies, a spokesman said that they stand against the type of practice unions are describing.

“The Scottish Government does not support the use of fire and rehire practices and they do not align with our Fair Work First principles.

“We have no role in the pay and conditions or contracts of teachers in the independent sector.”