When other unions are taking industrial action and ATL is not

Rights and conditions
02 November 2016
Members can find themselves in a difficult position in schools or colleges where colleagues are taking industrial action and they are not. However, the legal position in these circumstances is clear: industrial action by a union member is unlawful if it is not preceded by the formal notification, balloting and authorisation process.

Accordingly, ATL advises you very strongly against taking part in the industrial action where ATL has not balloted. ATL would not be able to support you if you did decide to take part.

You should inform the headteacher or principal (normally via their school or college representative) that:

  • ATL members are not taking industrial action; they are not in dispute with their employer
  • ATL members are available to work normally, but they are not willing to accept arrangements which undermine the industrial action of colleagues (see 'working normally', below).

Closure of the school or college

If your headteacher or principal decides to close your school or college, you should notify the management that you are not taking part in the industrial action and that you are available to work normally.

You may need to confirm this by arriving at the school/college premises to register your presence unless arrangements are agreed obviating the need for this.

Picket lines

If members of unions conducting the dispute are picketing outside the premises, the obligation on ATL members to work normally means that you must be prepared to cross the picket line, even though this may lead to some embarrassment or antipathy from colleagues.

In the unlikely event that you are physically prevented from attending work, you should formally notify your employer that this is the case and that you are not taking industrial action.

You may, of course, decide as a matter of personal choice not to cross a picket line and so fail to attend work. However, there is a real danger here that the employer will regard this as a breach of contract and withhold your salary.

Working normally

When colleagues are taking industrial action but ATL has not balloted, you should work as normally as the circumstances permit but you should not undermine your colleagues' action.

With this in mind, in the case of maintained schools, you should be aware of the provision in the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document that all directions of headteachers are subject to the requirement of reasonableness: if an instruction is clearly unreasonable, it can legitimately be refused.

ATL will normally consider it unreasonable for you to be asked:

  • to take over the work of colleagues engaged in industrial action, other than in exceptional circumstances (such as genuine emergency)
  • to undertake a teaching load greater than usual or to accept additional responsibilities or duties as a result of colleagues taking industrial action
  • to agree to the amalgamation of groups of pupils or students or to the division of one group between others as a result of colleagues taking industrial action.

Advice for support staff members if teachers are on strike

Schools should not ask support staff to provide cover for, or take, classes or group activities where this would normally be done by teachers who are on strike. In particular, HLTA or cover supervisors should only be taking classes or providing cover where it is already timetabled. Support staff should not be moved from the duties they would normally carry out in order to cover classes and frustrate the industrial action of colleagues.

The vast majority of schools will take a common-sense approach to strike action by other unions. They will not wish to antagonise staff relations by forcing one set of staff to undermine the action of others, who they have to work with in close proximity and on an ongoing basis. Good managers will also respect the wishes of staff who do not wish to act against their conscience by 'strike-breaking'.

However, if in spite of the express wishes of members, a school or college attempts to force them to carry out the duties of striking colleagues, the ATL school rep (or where there is no rep, the local ATL branch secretary) should seek an urgent meeting with the head or principal. If the head or principal will not relent, then the members should put in writing their principled opposition to covering for their absent colleagues, and make it clear that they are only doing so under duress.

Under no circumstances should members refuse to carry out a reasonable instruction from management, even if this runs counter to ATL guidance, as they could find themselves facing disciplinary action.

Please click here to download a copy of a model letter, which ATL members, individually or collectively, may wish to submit to management to indicate their unhappiness at being forced to carry out the duties of striking teachers.

For more advice on any of these issues, you can contact:

  • Your school Rep
  • Your Branch Secretary – if you don't know who it is, please click here and go to the bottom right-hand side of the page to find out.
  • The ATL Legal & Membership Services (LMS) Department.

Advice for support staff members if other support staff are on strike

As with a teachers' strike, schools should not ask support staff to provide cover where those duties would normally be done by support staff who are on strike. Similarly, support staff should not be moved from the duties they would normally carry out in order to cover the work of colleagues, and thus frustrate their industrial action.

The vast majority of schools will take a common-sense approach to strike action by other unions. They will not wish to antagonise staff relations by forcing one set of staff to undermine the action of others, who they have to work with in close proximity and on an ongoing basis. Good managers will also respect the wishes of staff who do not wish to act against their conscience by 'strike-breaking'.

If, in spite of the express wishes of members, a school or college attempts to force them to carry out the duties of striking colleagues, the ATL school rep (or where there is no rep, the local ATL branch secretary) should seek an urgent meeting with the head or principal. If the head or principal will not relent, then the members should put in writing their principled opposition to covering for their absent colleagues, and make it clear that they are only doing so under duress.

Under no circumstances should members refuse to carry out a reasonable instruction from management, even if this runs counter to ATL guidance, as they could find themselves facing disciplinary action.

Please click here to download a copy of a model letter, which ATL members, individually or collectively, may wish to submit to management to indicate their unhappiness at being forced to carry out the duties of striking colleagues.

For more advice on any of these issues, you can contact:

  • Your school Rep
  • Your Branch Secretary – if you don't know who it is, please click here and go to the bottom right-hand side of the page to find out.
  • The ATL Legal & Membership Services (LMS) Department.

Advice for managers

During a period of industrial action, ATL members of the management team may have responsibility for allocating work to colleagues (for instance, arranging cover for absent colleagues in a situation of 'no cover' action).

If you are carrying out this task, you should, as far as possible, adhere to established practice and respect the principle above that staff should not be asked to undermine the industrial action of colleagues who are taking action by calling on them to undertake work which has been refused.

For example, you should not arrange to cover classes where members of other unions are on strike with other teachers. Nor should you ask cover supervisors, higher level teaching assistants or any members of the support staff team to take over classes in the absence of colleagues who are on strike.

For more detailed advice, see:

Health and safety issues

Industrial action is likely to lead to a significant reduction in staffing levels and consequently there will be health and safety implications for head teachers to consider.

The health and safety of pupils must be paramount at all times when assessing the situation and if it is deemed that the likely number of absent colleagues means your school will not be able to maintain adequate staff to pupil ratios then serious consideration should be given to closing the school for the day.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a legal 'duty of care' on a school, as the employer, to safeguard the health and safety of all their staff as well as that of the pupils.

Risk assessments

To comply with its legal obligations, a school should conduct a risk assessment prior to deciding whether to open on the day of industrial action. This must take into account staff to pupil ratios, children with special needs who may need extra supervision, and the absence of first aiders, fire marshals and specialist teachers.

The purpose is to identify potential hazards, and take steps to eliminate or reduce them. Thus, as well as the obvious physical hazards facing staff and pupils, a reduction in staff can also lead to increased workloads, anxiety and worry of having to supervise a large number of pupils with limited support, which could ultimately lead to increased stress levels. This may occur where schools attempt to combine classes and fail to take into account the potential dangers of higher staff to pupil ratios.

If a school fails to conduct a risk assessment they could be in breach of the health and safety laws. The main legal responsibilities lie with schools, as the employers, not members of staff.

Therefore, if there are serious concerns about the health and safety of staff or pupils on the day of industrial action, those concerns should be highlighted to head teachers as soon as possible.

Relevant ATL publications

Need further advice?

Your first point of contact is your ATL/AMiE rep in your school or college. Your local ATL/AMiE branch is also available to help with queries, or you can contact AMiE's member advisors on tel: 0345 8118111 or email us. Please have your membership number to hand when telephoning and include it with any correspondence - this will help us to answer your query more quickly.