Minimum service levels represent the worst type of politics

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders 

Life, says Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Ever the English teacher, I hesitate to draw a parallel between such a bleakly elegant meditation on the human condition and something as tawdry as the government’s policy on minimum service levels, but it is a phrase that nonetheless keeps coming to mind.

Here’s why. 

On Monday night, via an announcement in The Sun (this, unfortunately, is the way the government goes about its business), it became clear that the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, intended to introduce mandatory minimum service levels during any future school and college strikes. A consultation was launched the next day which was such a dog’s dinner that it had to be hastily withdrawn and “updated” to address various design flaws.

The intended powers – which the government says will be in place by next academic year – are sweeping. Option one is to guarantee provision for vulnerable children, those taking exams and children of critical workers. Option two is all of these plus all primary school children (therefore the majority of pupils).

All of this means that a number of officials have already been beavering away in the background preparing all the documentation, advising ministers and preparing a media strategy, and that more officials will be involved in dealing with the consultation feedback, publishing a response, and all the parliamentary paraphernalia for the final decision.

It is very likely that the legality of the legislation will then be challenged by the unions (including ASCL) in the courts on the grounds that it is at odds with international conventions. 

Even if the government’s view then prevails, it is likely that a General Election will take place next year, possibly in May. If Labour wins the election, it has said it will repeal this legislation. So, in short, a great deal of work is going on in Whitehall on legislation that is legally dubious and may have a very limited shelf life. 

All of which begs the question as to why the government is so keen on ramming this through before the next election. If it were me, I’d probably want the million or so workers in our schools and colleges to feel valued, rather than the government picking a fight with us.

Nevertheless, the stated reason is that minimum service levels will “protect” children’s education from the disruption of strikes which this year "led to the loss of 25 million school days"(a meaningless figure). 

But, me - I’d suggest there are three other reasons:

1. Ministers are smarting from the fact that they were pressured earlier this year into agreeing a 6.5% teacher pay award. That pay award was vital in order to at least put some sort of brake on the downward spiral of pay and staff shortages. But the government had dug in its heels until the combination of a recommendation from the independent Schools Teachers’ Review Body and pressure exerted by the education unions left ministers with no alternative other than to agree to a higher award than they wanted. There was never actually any need for any strike action to take place. It was the government’s refusal to be reasonable that caused the dispute.

2. The Autumn Statement announced last week gives schools no additional funding to afford any meaningful pay award next year. While the STRB is independent and makes the recommendation for the pay award, the government generally sets out what it considers to be affordable and makes the final decision. Minimum service levels will help to reduce the ability of the unions to stand in the way of a pay award which may be inadequate and which may worsen the teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

3. The Conservatives are keen to put “clear blue water” between themselves and Labour in the forthcoming General Election. The argument over minimum service levels will be used to say that the Conservatives are on the side of the public while Labour are in hock to the “union barons.” They’ll hope that voters buy this narrative rather than the real story that schools and colleges are on their knees because of years of underfunding, staff shortages, pay erosion and an accountability system that wrecks people’s lives and drives them out of the profession. This is what is actually doing damage to children’s education. Let’s make sure then that we keep reminding people (aka voters) of the truth.

In reality, minimum service levels are designed to weaken the power of trade unions and give the government a free hand to impose less attractive pay and conditions. 

The measures will also place employers – i.e. local authorities and trusts – in an impossible position. This is because they’ll be expected to deliver minimum service levels, but it will be at their discretion whether to issue work notices telling staff they cannot strike. This puts employers on a collision course with either the government, which will blame them if minimum service levels are not delivered, or the unions, if work notices are issued.

In short, minimum service levels are a profoundly illiberal policy by a government that has lost the argument. 

They are not about safeguarding public services at all but represent instead the very worst type of tribal politics – the type that, yes, is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 01/12/2023 09:19:56