Working in the independent sector

This guide addresses the main issues and difficulties encountered by NEU members working in the independent sector. 


This handbook is a guide for NEU members working in the independent sector and a resource for NEU school reps, branch secretaries and regional officials. The guide addresses the main issues and difficulties encountered by NEU members working in the independent sector. It is written to provide general guidance and is not a complete or authoritative statement of the law. For all individual employment issues, you should seek advice from NEU.

The law stated in this handbook is as it relates to England and Wales, although there are frequent parallel arrangements in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Further guidance can be obtained from NEU’s London, Cardiff and Belfast offices.

Unlike the state sector, there are no national pay or conditions of employment for teachers. There is no standard book of rules for teachers or support staff. Sometimes there isn’t even a written contract of employment. Pay and conditions vary enormously from school to school, to the extent that it is a tale of two cities; it can be the best of worlds and the worst of worlds.

NEU advises members to seek to resolve an issue in the best way that a situation may allow. While knowledge of the law is obviously invaluable, it is important to remember that the law is only one part of the equation. Negotiation and dispute resolution is dependent on a whole host of things, some of which may not be readily apparent.

One general question you need to address is whether the issue is a personal problem or a collective issue. Most problems are experienced as individual issues but often it is through collective action that they are resolved.

As the aim of this handbook is to provide information to help assist NEU members resolve employment difficulties at school, it inevitably concentrates on some of the negative aspects of working in the independent sector. But there can of course be advantages, including smaller class sizes, more motivated and better behaved pupils, longer holidays, freedom from the national curriculum and better facilities. There may also be benefits such as subsidised accommodation, free meals and the use of sports facilities.

General disadvantages of working in an independent school often include a longer working day, the expectation of running after-school clubs and carrying out lunch duties, pressure from higher parental expectation, greater pressure from the market force of competition between schools for pupils, lack of consultation and involvement of staff in decisions and lack of transparency in awarding pay and other benefits.

Chapter overview

Chapter 2 looks at NEU’s principles and how we support and represent our members. It also looks at why NEU is the number one choice in the independent sector. Strength in numbers always helps. NEU is by far and away the largest union in the sector with over 20,000 teaching and support staff members. Focusing on the specific needs of members in the sector is key to our approach. NEU is the only union with independent sector officials, an elected independent member advisory group, an annual independent schools’ conference, a termly independent sector newsletter, training courses for independent school reps, and of course, publications for members in the sector!

Achieving and maintaining a harmonious working environment is reliant on effective staff organisation. Chapter 3 looks at members working together in schools. It examines the role that all members, not just the NEU rep, can play in building a strong and healthy workplace union. Acting collectively gives strength and confidence to teachers and support staff. It is important for everyone to build a strong union by recruiting new members. Ultimately, it gives NEU, your union, more influence in your school, in the independent sector and education generally. We also provide top tips for recruiting, negotiating and making meetings work.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the advice that NEU gives centres on contracts of employment. A common question from members is: “My school has instructed me to do something which I consider unreasonable. Do I have to do it?” The contract of employment is the starting point to answer this question.

Many people would be surprised to learn that NEU receives at least one call a week from a member working in an independent school without a written contract of employment. Chapter 4 addresses the points you should look out for in a contract of employment and provides advice on questions to ask before taking a new job. The chapter details the information you are entitled to receive by law. It also covers terms that are not usually spelt out in a contract of employment but which the law considers to be central to any employer-employee relationship, for example, the implied duty on an employer to provide a safe environment in which to work.

We also provide an NEU model contract for full-time teachers with an accompanying commentary. It does not seek to provide a gold standard of employment rights but it does aim to provide a reasonable standard of protection that a fair employer can live with. The model for full-time teachers also provides a basic model for part-time teachers, but there are some important areas of difference. The guiding principle for part-time contracts is that rights and responsibilities should be the same as for full-time staff but on a pro-rata basis.

There is a law to ensure that part-time staff should not be treated less favourably in comparison with full-time staff.

We also look at a special consideration in independent schools – the provision of accommodation.

Good employment policies and procedures can prevent problems from occurring or escalating. They also enable problems to be dealt with in a fair, consistent and timely manner. That is why NEU encourages members and their schools to adopt and develop best practice and policy.

Chapter 5 provides NEU’s model policies for three key areas – discipline, grievance and capability. These policies are designed to be simple and easy to use. It may be that your school has a more comprehensive policy. NEU’s model policies are intended to cover only the main points of good practice and to provide a fair and consistent framework for both employee and employer.

We also give practical advice on what to do should you find yourself in a disciplinary situation at school where the proper procedure has not been followed. Following on from the key policies discussed above, there are a whole host of other policies that should be part of your general terms and conditions and your contract of employment.

Chapter 6 addresses appraisal and performance management systems. NEU believes that critical reflection in a supportive environment is fundamental to improving performance achievement.

However, some systems can prove counter-productive and unhelpful.

Chapter 7 concentrates on family rights and sickness entitlement, including maternity and paternity rights, adoption rights, flexible working and time off for dependents. Sickness entitlement covers the right to paid leave. We also look at pregnancy and health and safety. Many of these are statutory entitlements, regardless of the provision of the employer.

A good employer will enhance these benefits. We therefore look at the minimum statutory rights enjoyed by all employees and the enhanced conditions of service offered in the state sector. You should always check your contract of employment. The maintained sector provides enhanced terms, including those for teachers in England and Wales as set out in the annual, statutory School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD). Many good independent schools mirror the provision of the state sector.

One of the key terms of employment is pay. Chapter 8 addresses pay and its key issues. What is your starting salary? What is the school’s pay scale and how do you progress up it? What provision is there for an annual cost of living increase? The vast majority of independent schools have pay scales. Many are linked to the state sector ensuring pay will be not less than the state sector levels.

Unfortunately, some independent schools operate on spot salaries, which are normally inconsistent, not awarded on merit and non-transparent.

We set out NEU’s recommendations for the content of a pay policy. The chapter also considers collective bargaining and individual negotiation.

Chapter 9 covers the difficult subject of redundancy. Although the majority of independent schools have charitable status, they are businesses. If they do not attract enough fee-paying pupils they will become economically unviable and redundancies will result.

This chapter looks at the legal definition of redundancy and addresses what an employer must do by law and the procedures they must follow. We also provide an NEU model redundancy procedure. As with all our model policies, it is intended to cover only the main points of good practice and to provide a fair and consistent framework for both employee and employer. We also give practical advice on what might be done

to prevent redundancy. If all else fails then you will need to know about your entitlement to redundancy pay, notice pay, and where to turn if your employer is insolvent.

Employment in an independent school is unfortunately often characterised by long daily hours. Chapter 10 examines the legislation relating to the Working Time Directive and its application to independent schools. What are your rights to a break during the day, over a 24-hour period, or over a week?

Chapter 11 looks at staff consultation and trade union recognition. It is established practice in industrial relations in the maintained sector that staff and their professional reps will be consulted on issues that affect their working lives. Employees have the legal right to collectively negotiate pay, hours and holidays if their trade union is recognised.

The rep of a recognised trade union has the right to reasonable paid time off to carry out their duties. There is also the right of disclosure of relevant information in order to have meaningful negotiations, such as collective bargaining over pay.

There are also many advantages to employers of involving staff in decision- making and providing a clear and efficient forum where consultation can take place.

Finally, chapter 12 provides other sources of information, including contacts for all NEU’s offices.

For the purposes of simplicity, Working in the Independent Sector refers to ‘schools’, but the term should be read to include independent colleges, to whom the advice and information in these pages also apply.

The information provided in this book on policy and guidance is correct at the time of going to print, but may be subject to change.

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