A leading Glasgow independent school has told unions that ongoing strikes over pensions could lead to layoffs.

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) and the NASUWT are on strike in opposition to Hutchesons' Grammar School's rollout of a new pension plan. 

A school spokeswoman said that the strikes could discourage new students from applying, which could put a dent in the roll and lead to redundancies.

Unions are continuing with their strike, saying the new pensions are worse for teachers and that the school has used “fire and rehire” tactics to pressure staff to agree.

And although Hutchesons’ has denied accusations of “fire and rehire” tactics, a letter seen this week by The Herald showed that teachers who refused new pension terms were sent a “notice of termination of existing contract and offer of re-engagement”.

Termination and re-engagement

After a 60-day consultation earlier this year, Hutchesons’ asked staff to accept new pension terms. Under the new scheme, the school withdrew from the Scottish Teacher Pension Scheme (STPS), the government plan covering most teachers at private and public schools.

According to union figures, more than half of teachers refused that offer, feeling it was less financially secure than the STPS.

Noting that the consultation included “an option of last resort… to terminate contracts of those employees who did not agree with the changes and offer them re-engagement on new contracts” the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) and NASUWT unions launched strike ballots in early March.

Both unions voted to strike

When announcing their ballot results on March 22, EIS General Secretary Andrea Bradley said: “EIS members are requesting that the school does not issue notices that contracts will be terminated in August.

“They do not wish to be 're-engaged' on new contracts with poorer terms and conditions.”

On March 28, Hutchesons’ sent a letter to staff members who had not yet agreed to the new pension scheme.

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The letter, entitled “Notice of Termination of Existing Contract and Offer of Re-engagement", told recipients that their existing contracts would be terminated on August 20, 2023.

The letter also gave staff the option to agree to new pension terms and resume their employment with a new contract on August 21, 2023.

The school has “strongly rejected” accusations of “fire and rehire”.

Deadline to take action

The notice read: “This letter is therefore formal notice to terminate your existing contract of employment with the Governors of Hutchesons’ Educational Trust.

“This letter is also an offer of re-employment by the School under a new contract incorporating the proposed changes to your pension terms referred to in the Chairman’s earlier letters.

“If you accept the new contract, you will not lose your period of continuous service with the School, and there will be no gap in your employment.”

If staff did not sign the new contract by April 14, 2023, the school said it would automatically withdraw the offer of re-engagement.

According to Hutchesons', as of May 19–the same day EIS members picketed in front of the school–all but one member of staff had accepted the new pension.

Why change pensions now?

Staffing levels at independent schools are determined by the school roll. A spokeswoman for the school said on Tuesday that the school changed pensions to cap spending, grow the roll and remain affordable to as many families as possible.

As the dispute continues to escalate, protecting teachers’ jobs has featured more prominently in the school’s statements.

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An early pension consultation document shared with staff and seen by The Herald didn’t directly mention protecting jobs.

Immediately after Friday’s strike action, however, the school said that it withdrew from the STPS to protect teachers’ jobs.

Unions warned about prolonged strikes

While the school has not said there would be redundancies directly related to the pension plans, the spokeswoman said the knock-on effects of strikes could impact jobs.

“The school has been clear with teaching staff and the unions that a fall in the school roll, which determines staffing levels, could lead to redundancies.

“The EIS union was told that the school believes a strike, and the negative publicity a strike creates, could potentially impact the number on roll.”

Planned strike action began on May 19 when EIS members downed tools and took to the picket lines. The NASUWT will join the EIS on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 30 and 31.

The NASUWT has separate strikes planned for Wednesday and Thursday, June 7 and 8.