The coronavirus independent sector FAQs compliment the advice on the main NEU coronavirus advice pages.

What can I do to help make sure that my independent school is taking appropriate safety precautions?

The National Education Union (NEU) has produced a wide range of advice and guidance on coronavirus for all sectors, for the benefit of members, students, their families and schools.

Currently, as schools and colleges plan for safe operation in the new academic year, a key document is the joint union checklist for September reopening. It provides useful discussion points and prompts. The NEU has also issued advice for staff at greater risk due to personal or family circumstances.

Take the NEU checklist and share it with senior management. Discuss it with NEU members and other colleagues. Compare it to your risk assessment. You might also find helpful to look at the NEU guidance on what a risk assessment should look like.

We know that many independent schools have welcomed and are using the NEU checklists.

Should my employer be consulting staff and their unions?

Yes. Staff deliver the service. They are best placed to understand the practicalities of what might work and what won’t. It is their health potentially at risk.

Unions give staff a collective voice. The NEU draws on our experience, and knowledge of both the independent and state sectors. We provide the organisation, legal standing, advice and guidance to assist your discussion at school or college level.

Consultation is an on-going process informing regular reviews of practice and risk assessment.

It is to the school’s benefit to make use of staff and their union resources. Many independent schools do. If not, members should be confident to proactively suggest that they do.

What about boarding school safety?

The NEU is particularly concerned by the enhanced exposure to potential risk for our members working in boarding schools, for the pupils, and their families.

We have provided general advice in the NEU guidance on coronavirus and boarding schools.

In respect of practical application and risk assessment, the NEU ensured that key concerns of our boarding school members were addressed in the new checklist for the safe re-opening.

Members should also have reference to the main NEU guidance on Coronavirus.

We also recommend reading the guidance issued by the Boarding School Association, including their charter and checklist.

Doesn’t government guidance only apply to state schools?

No. Government requirements, measures and guidance on coronavirus apply to all educational establishments, whether in the state or independent sector.

The DfE has collated guidance for schools and colleges on its website.

Do the devolved governments agree on the same approach?

There are many instances where guidance in Wales and Scotland is the same or very similar.

However, in some areas it is not. For instance, the 2m social distancing rule still applies in guidance issued by the Scottish government for the start of the Scottish new school term which began on 11 August 2020, 2m physical distancing should be maintained between adults and adults, and adults and children/young people who are not from the same household, wherever possible.

Should I have a say in changes affecting my terms and conditions?

Yes. Staff and their union representatives should be consulted on any proposed changes to working conditions. This is good practice. In some instances, it is a legal requirement.

Some issues will be contractual. This means that either party to the contract cannot unilaterally change terms without negotiation and agreement. This is an individual legal right.

In most instances, proposed changes will be collective – affecting a group of staff, or all staff.

With over 30,000 members working in the independent sector, the NEU is likely to be the largest trade union in your workplace. It is appropriate for the NEU workplace rep, or reps, to be part of strategic planning of any measures affecting staff working conditions.

What’s the best way to get our voices heard?

The best way for staff to strengthen their collective voice, and influence the decisions that affect you, is via trade union recognition. Recognition is a statutory right, where a majority of the staff group want collective representation by their union representatives.

The NEU is recognised in over 100 independent schools. Amongst other things, recognition provides for negotiation, not just consultation; a legal right of the disclosure of relevant information; paid time for staff union reps to properly represent their colleagues; and a commitment from the employer to seek agreement.

NEU recommends that all members secure recognition, where ever possible. See the website for further information on NEU recognition in the independent sector.

My independent school has said that we need to do extra work to catch-up for the lockdown

While some degree of flexibility of work is reasonable, it is not reasonable for an employer to expect staff to undertake significant additional work unless by agreement and paid.

Support staff have set hours and usually provision for overtime pay. Almost uniquely, teachers in independent schools do not have set hours and there is an expectation and commitment to extra-curricular provision.  

What’s happening to the furlough scheme?

The NEU, as part of the TUC, lobbied for financial support for business but especially the protection of jobs.

Since March 2020, more than 9 million workers in the UK have had 80% of their wages, up to a cap of £2,500 per month, subsidized by the state. The Job Retention Scheme enabled staff to be furloughed – not working but kept on the payroll. 

The NEU called upon independent sector employers to top up the remaining 20%, as many good employers did.

The scheme has evolved over the months, including from July, the ability to flexi-furlough –part-time working/part-time furloughed. The employers’ contribution incrementally increased from August, through September and October. The Scheme ends on 31 October 2020.

Is there any other financial help for independent schools?

Yes. The Job Retention Bonus gives employers £1,000 for every employee who has previously been furloughed under Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) – if they remain continuously employed to the end of January 2021.

Other provisions include: support for business that pay business rates; Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme; and Statutory Sick Pay relief for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises.

What’s all this mean for independent school finances?

Undoubtedly, independent school finances will have taken a taken a big hit.

The Job Retention Scheme will be a life-saver for many jobs and some independent schools themselves.

Though, the furlough money is not a silver bullet. It will not fully offset the loss in fee income, but it will substantially mitigate it. And, unlike many other private businesses, schools’ income hasn’t stopped. Fees have been paid, albeit with partial rebates.

However, there will be some job losses. The NEU will robustly defend our members’ interests.

My school says that pay is frozen due to coronavirus. What can I do?

Despite, the financial impact of coronavirus, many schools and colleges can still afford pay increases. For many years, school fee increases have consistently outstripped both inflation and wage increases. The fat years should be used to off-set the lean. Remember that a pay freeze – a pay cut in real terms. 

First and foremost, you need to check your contract of employment and pay policy. Pay increases – whether cost of living, or pay progression – might be a contractual entitlement.

The NEU recommends that you request from your employer the full disclosure of financial and other relevant information. You can also check the Charity Commission and Companies House websites, as appropriate.

If belt-tightening is unavoidable then members should have thoroughly examined the finances and be satisfied that there really is no alternative.

It might be appropriate to remind the Governors that the success of the school or college is down to staff and that there is good reason why staffing costs are the highest budget head. Governors and proprietors need to run the business on sound financial footing. They also need to ensure that they attract and retain quality staff.

Members should bear in mind that the budget-setting process for the next financial year begins in February and NEU members should consider putting a pay claim.

For general advice on pay negotiation see the NEU briefing on Collective Bargaining Independent Sector, updated for September 2020.

Aren’t state sector colleagues getting a pay rise?  

Yes. The Government has accepted the recommendations of the School Teachers’ Review Body on school teacher pay in England from 1 September 2020.  Starting pay will increase by 5.5%, with increases of 4.95% to 3.3% on M2-M5 and 2.75% for all other teachers.  TLR and SEN allowances increase by 2.75%.

State school support staff received a pay rise of 2.75% from 1 April 2020. Staff with less than 5 years-service also received an additional day annual leave. This follows an increase of 2% increase in April 2019, with lower-paid staff receiving a larger increase.

For further information see the NEU briefing on Collective Bargaining Independent Sector, updated for September 2020.

Is Coronavirus a TPS get-out of jail free card?

No! The Teacher’s Pension Scheme is a significant part of a teacher’s remuneration and their contractual conditions. For many NEU members, not being in the TPS is a deal breaker.

The collateral damage to the economy caused by the measures taken to try to prevent the spread of Coronavirus have damaged fee income. It is likely to lead to more employers considering leaving the scheme. A few will have little choice. But members should have examined the books and exhausted all alternatives and be truly satisfied that it has to be done. However, as before Coronavirus, many employers will be making a choice. A choice for which you pay the price. A choice which you can reject.

Coronavirus is not a TPS get-out of jail free card. Members need to be ready to push back. Make the necessary preparations now. You need to be ready to make robust collective representations, as the NEU, to protect this fundamental part of your salary package. 

To date, NEU members have been successful in 49 TPS consultations in independent schools. Members will continue to be successful.  For further information, see Protecting independent school teachers’ pensions.

Are the majority of independent schools remaining in the TPS?

Yes. As reported in the TES, a recent NEU Freedom of Information request debunks false claims by some employers that they are one of the last in the TPS. Numbers leaving are edging up but, with 144 leaving out of a total number of 1,171 independent schools in the TPS, it represents around 12% leaving, or to put it the other way, 88% staying!

My employer has proposed that all staff voluntarily take a pay cut of 15 per cent

NEU acknowledges that many schools are facing unprecedented challenges and difficulties as a result of the current emergency.  However, important variation to your terms and conditions should be the subject of very careful consideration and subject to negotiation. 

The NEU recommends that you do not agree to detrimental changes to your contract without union advice, full disclosure of information and only if satisfied that there is no alternative.  

Members also need to consider that if the employer is proposing such an extraordinary cut to your remuneration, it might be a sign that it is already too late. In which case, members will simply lose money. Should the worse come to the worse, your redundancy pay would also be reduced as it is calculated based on your salary. 

The NEU calls upon any employer making such proposals to negotiate with us in a full and frank discussion of the business’ finances, possible alternatives and strategic plan.

My school is making provision for online lessons

The NEU believe that it is a sensible measure to have provision for online teaching should school leaders determine that it is not possible to have a full complement of pupils in school, or college, or in the event of future lockdowns.

With more time to plan and prepare, greater consideration should be given to good practice. The NEU retain welfare concerns for both staff and students in live interactive video lessons.

For further information, see NEU guidance on distance learning.

What can we do now?

Make sure your colleagues – new starters and old stagers – have union protection. If not in a union, ask them to join the NEU. It also enhances your collective NEU voice. It is easy to Join NEU online.

If your school or college doesn’t have a NEU rep – volunteer!

If you would like to speak to an organiser about the rep role, or getting things organised in your workplace, email organising@neu.org.uk.  

Are there local NEU independent school rep networks I can join?

NEU independent school reps in a few areas have set up email groups with fellow reps from local, or comparable, schools. These networks enable members to share information, discuss policy and practice, and support each other.

If you are the NEU workplace rep and would like to set up a rep network then please contact independent@neu.org.uk and provide the names of the schools you are interested in. With consent of those involved, the NEU can put you in contact with other reps. 

How can I get involved in NEU activity in my region?

Some areas have NEU WhatsApp groups which are open to all independent sector members in that particular area. Other activities might be being arranged by your regional rep on the NEU National Council independent sector. Contact them and say that you would like to be involved.