Recruiter pulls out of school amid ‘strike-breaking’ row

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A recruitment agency will stop providing staff to a school in Essex following a row over the use of temporary workers to cover a strike.

Pertemps Education Network said it was told by Drapers’ Pyrgo Priory School it needed three teaching assistants for sickness cover. It was “completely unaware”, it said, of ongoing strike action at the Romford school.

Thirteen members of support staff at the school, members of the National Education Union, have walked out several times since the summer term over changes to their terms and conditions, which the school said would save it up to £60,000 a year.

The government changed the law in July to make it legal for employers to use agency workers to cover striking staff. A legal challenge to this decision was made by education unions this week.

The school drafted in agency workers to cover strikes this term and is thought to be the first to use the new law.

This prompted a backlash from the NEU, which wrote to agencies about their involvement.

In a response letter from Pertemps, seen by Schools Week, managing director Andrew Anastasiou said Drapers’ Pyrgo was “not a client”, but called “for the first time a couple of weeks ago for help in finding three TAs for two days, which we were informed was for sickness cover”.

“However, now we fully understand the situation, we will refrain from supplying any staff until the dispute has been resolved. We have no intention [of] involving ourselves or undermining any parties and fully appreciate the ethical responsibility.”

Trust ‘reluctantly’ used agency staff to cover strike

However, trust chief executive Bushra Nasir said recruitment agencies were “made fully aware their staff would be used as cover for the strikes”

“In putting our students first, we reluctantly took the decision to hire some agency staff to cover some roles during the strike, in line with government legislation.”

The school told parents in July it was unable to offer a “full educational service” during strikes and arranged for online work for pupils at home.

Nasir said this week the cover “ensured that all pupils could attend school during any further disruption. It was not politically motivated or done to undermine the strike but purely in the best interest of our children and their families.”

The law change was opposed by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, the industry body for recruiters.

Neil Carberry, the REC’s chief executive, said it was “apparent from talking to the firms involved” with Drapers’ Prygo school that “no or very limited information about the situation in the school was passed to the agencies before they were approached for staff”.

Schools must give recruiters ‘truthful picture’

Under the Conduct of employment agencies and employment businesses regulations 2003, recruiters must not introduce or supply a work-seeker to a hirer “unless it has sufficient information from the hirer to select a suitable work-seeker for the position the hirer seeks to fill”.

Carberry said agencies “need to be able to fully assess the workplace situation in order to comply with the requirements of conduct regulations. It’s essential that schools give a truthful picture of the situation to their agencies to build confidence in their relationship.”

Drapers’ Pyrgo staff are due to strike again next week, and again next month.

Michael Gavan, the NEU’s regional officer for London, said Pertemps “effectively confirmed that their staff were being brought in under false pretences”, calling Drapers’ approach “foolish and provocative”.

“The school’s leadership were too ashamed to say they were hiring agency workers as strike breakers so instead told them they would be covering staff who were off sick.”

Trust hopes to save £60k a year

The trust – founded by The Drapers’ Company, one of the City of London’s livery companies, and Queen Mary University of London – disputes this.

The strike relates to changes to support staff pay and conditions that came into effect this month. The trust said these would save £38,000 this year and next, and about £60,000 a year from 2024.

The NEU has warned some TAs will have their roles downgraded, while some face cuts to their hours. The trust said without the changes, “the future of the school will be put at risk, along with the viability of the trust if we allow an uncontrolled financial situation to occur”.

Nasir said the trust had gone to “great lengths over a protracted period to resolve this dispute.

“We have stated from the outset that we respect the rights of staff to take strike action. We do not apportion blame but apply a considered and pragmatic approach to resolving this issue.”

Strikes will have impacted 31 school days in five months, she said.

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