The Girls Day School Trust (GDST) is a group of 23 independent fee-paying schools, which charges parents up to £6,772 a term. But despite being flush with cash, it is planning on withdrawing staff from the teachers’ pension scheme (TPS). This could see them lose up to 20% off their pensions.
Worse yet, if workers do not agree to being withdrawn, they will be subjected to ‘fire and rehire’, forcing them onto lower contracts.
The TPS is available to all who work in state-funded schools. But many independent schools also opt in to attract staff.
However, Cheryl Giovanni, head of the GDST, has stated that the Department for Education increase in employer contributions by 43% is ‘unsuitable’ and ‘unaffordable’ for the trust going forward.
As the union has rightfully highlighted, however, the revenue of the trust (which is available publicly) has been ‘healthy’. In fact, fee increases have actually exceeded the schools’ revenue lost to inflation.
This means the amount of money the trust has in reserves has increased year after year.
Bullying and betrayal
NEU Marxists from Socialist Appeal spoke to workers involved in this dispute. They pointed to the dismissive and ‘bullying’ behaviour of management:
“They termed this a ‘consultation’, but we feel it has been anything but. The Section 188 Notices were issued in the autumn term, demonstrating to us staff that there was no sincere interest in discussing this issue. The period of ‘consultation’ was really intended to be a period of grieving for us and they hoped we would accept this decision as a fait accompli and just roll over.
“The tone of emails we have received from the CEO, Cheryl Giovannoni, has been bullying and borderline harassment. The tenor has been one of gaslighting – as if we cannot understand the simple numbers that we see before our eyes. According to the pension forecast models, almost all teachers, if not all, will be financially worse off under their ‘flexible pension plan’ – some staff to the tune of nearly 20%.
“The attitude of management overall has been dismissive, rude, condescending and patronising. They claim to ‘fully understand the strength of feeling’ and to ‘respect their teachers’ but if ever there was a case of actions speaking louder than words…”
One way the GDST and other independent schools (which includes academies) cut costs and guarantee this surplus is by keeping staff wages low.
Legally these schools can operate outside the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD), and so are not legally obliged to pay staff the same as if they worked in a local authority school. This often means teachers working in the GDST earn less than colleagues working in local authority schools.
For a time, this state of affairs has been tolerated by teachers, albeit without enthusiasm. But the plans to withdraw from the TPS have become the straw that broke the camel’s back.
GDST prides itself on being a ‘family’ and ‘community’. The hypocrisy of the trust’s actions have therefore unsurprisingly not been lost on the teachers. As workers explained in talking to NEU Marxists:
“We are striking to stand up for ourselves and for our principles, the same way we try to teach the girls to do. We expect a signed and agreed contract to be honoured by our employer. That is all we are asking for – nothing more, nothing less. Striking is the only voice and power that we teachers have and it is the only way we can persuade the trust to remain in the Teachers’ Pension scheme.”
One GDST teacher told us she was striking because she thought teachers needed “to tell the GDST that we need to stay in the TPS”.
“We won't be able to retain our best teachers, we won't be able to recruit good new teachers.”
The same sentiment has been expressed by other GDST teachers, stating that the plan to withdraw from TPS is “gutting” and workers feel “betrayed” as if a “rug has been swept from under our feet”.
This is the first strike for many of these schools in their history, which demonstrates the depth of feeling on the picket lines – nothing short of abject betrayal.
On 10 February, 1600 NEU and NASUWT members in GDST walked out, beginning six days of discontinuous strike action. Further strikes are planned for 23-24 February and 1-3 March.
At the moment, the mood is optimistic and the teachers are determined to fight. A thumping 95% of NEU members voted in favour of strike action, on a turnout of 84%.
Workers are not just responding to this infraction, but also to a steady decline in their standard of living over several years, with pay increases below inflation, including a pay freeze last academic year.
If they were to lose the Teachers’ Pension Scheme as well, many of them would find their situations completely untenable.
Pickets were held up and down the country for the first day of the strike, with an additional rally held in Central London. Workers also marched on GDST head office. In doing so, they found themselves receiving much support from the local community and parents.
“Most of the contact on the subject has been supportive. Our sixth formers in particular are very supportive of our action and understand that we, in the words of one member of my tutor group, ‘make or break the school’. They were the first to bring us teas, coffees, biscuits, cakes, brownies etc on the strike day before school started.
“Almost all conversations with parents on the day were positive and demonstrated support. Despite only really receiving one side of the argument via emails from the CEO, they seem to understand our position and that this is not the way to treat a staff body that you claim to respect and hope to retain in the long term.”
For public control
Schools are not just facilities or buildings. While the GDST can boast state of the art facilities for students, it does not take away from the fact that it is teachers and support staff who make schools. As workers told us:
“The reason I am striking is for my students, so that they do not lose the amazing teachers they have. I do not believe the GDST will be able to maintain the quality of its teaching staff if we are not compensated at least as well as state school teachers…
“Teaching is a profession that should be valued and respected. It should attract high calibre graduates. It can only do that if the pay and benefits are good. I have met my obligations in my contract and do not believe it is fair that the trust gets to change the terms of my contract with no discussion. A 20-30% cut to my pension is not something I can ignore – my pension is my pay.”
Simply stating that these pensions are ‘unaffordable’ is admitting you cannot run a school. That is the bottom line when it comes to GDST’s pathetic excuses.
A school that cannot ‘afford’ to give teachers a decent pension is a school that is also happy to allow students’ learning conditions to degrade in order to save a penny or two.
This highlights why it is vital that the labour movement fight for an end to privatisation and academisation in education, with all schools – including private and free schools – brought back under local authority control.
Unite and fight
But these strikes are not just of significance for fee-paying schools. They are a lesson to all workers in the education sector: We cannot accept any degradation in conditions, as this is the capitalists’ way of passing the costs of their crisis onto our shoulders.
If the GDST teachers lose this dispute, education employers in both the private and public sector will be more than happy to follow suit and attack the pay, pensions, and conditions of their own workforces. And this will not stop at the boundaries of the education sector. Workers across the public sector are facing similar attacks.
We must fight to defend our conditions across the board, and join with other workers to defend pay, conditions, and jobs across the whole public sector. United, we cannot be defeated.
Workers in the GDST have shown the way. The rest of the NEU and trade union movement must support them in every way possible.