First Strike in a Private School

Charles George reflects on the recent strike in Hutchesons’ Grammar, and the seismic shifts that are leading private school staff to organise and strike.

I am writing this while sitting in one of Scotland’s independent schools and knowing well what state my school and sector find themselves in. There are 51 mainstream independent schools in Scotland, attended by approximately 29,000 pupils. The sector employs over 3,500 teachers,  about 6.5% of all teachers in Scotland (SCIS, 2022). 

In terms of facts and figures, the sector is not huge, but it has serviced a steady demand over hundreds of years. In recent years the sector has seen significant change. Most of the changes have happened without the public noticing, but their impact has been far reaching and sometimes devastating. 

The State of Play in the Independent Sector

What have these changes been? How have people in the sector been affected? Over the last 10 years pupil numbers have dropped by approximately 3.5%. Not a lot, I hear you read. However, when average fees in Scotland amount to £15,000 a year, this reduction equates to over £15.75 million, and that is a very conservative estimate. The increasing quality of state sector schools has also had an impact on the private/independent sector. Improvements in the standard of education in more affluent council areas has been resulting in a reduction in demand for the private/independent sector. Then there are other elephants in the room. The loss of charitable status from 2019/20 resulted in 20% business relief being withdrawn. The loss of relief alongside other pressures was too much for Craigholme School for Girls in Pollokshields, which closed its doors in 2020. It was the canary in the mine: these are turbulent times for the sector. 

The picket line at Hutchesons’ Grammar School.

Amidst this turbulence, something important happened: a Scottish independent school went on strike for the first time in history. In January 2023 Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow’s southside announced a consultation regarding the removal of benefits, such as the withdrawal of staff from the Scottish Teachers Pension Scheme and the introduction of the potential for redundancy for not agreeing to contractual changes. When they heard of it, Hutchesons’ staff were rightly outraged and soon the rest of the teaching community were too. Staff at the school were of course union members, but had never before believed they had a real need for recognition, bargaining powers, or indeed the most extreme of options- a strike. Teachers being treated as commodities and not people.  Teachers were stating that they were signing new contracts under duress, and that employers themselves were pressuring staff and threatening them with dismissal – fire and rehire by any other name. Staff were outraged, betrayed and scared about their position at the school. The overarching feeling was that staff were not going to stand for this injustice. They came together in their trade unions, the EIS, SSTA and NASUWT, and collectively decided on the ultimate act of solidarity, to strike.  

This had never happened before in Scotland, and staff did not take the decision lightly. Staff were unrecognised and unsupported by their own managers, but they did what they needed to, to ensure that they were seen and heard. Colleagues normally fashion placards together for school shows: in this instance it was to show their plight to the school and throw it into the public light. The strike made the headlines, and reports highlighted  some of the school’s very high profile ex-pupils, including Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf and Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar. The walk-out in May and June 2023 sent ripples through the independent sector. 

What Now?

Well, the solidarity, hard work, stress and effort of colleagues at Hutchesons’ paid off eventually, and in October 2023 an agreement was reached, settling the dispute. The school also agreed to be the first independent school to officially recognise the teachers’ trade unions for collective bargaining purposes, and on the 30th of January 2024 the recognition agreement was officially signed. It was a real breakthrough for all involved, and a turning point in the minds of teachers in the independent sector. 

Union recognition is an unprecedented step in the sector, which for the longest time has relied on improved pay and better holidays to retain staff and keep them content. It serves as a signal of  the changes in the whole sector that have had huge consequences as demands have increased while benefits have diminished. The independent and state sector are both suffering from staff cuts, and in the independent sector they are coupled with compulsory redundancies and reduced promotional opportunities that are making the sector the most turbulent it has been for at least  50 years. 

So as pressures mount throughout the sector, staff in other schools are looking to collectively bargain and seek union recognition before the same misfortune befalls them as befell the staff at Hutchensons’. There are currently at least two other independent sector schools in the process of seeking union recognition. 

Through all the ups and downs, the fundamental truth is that teachers are hard working professionals who deserve to be treated with respect.To take away our agency and our empowerment will only embolden us all to action. We have learnt a hugely valuable lesson from our Hutchesons’ colleagues that will equip us in the future, when schools use the ever-increasing costs to justify putting staff on the chopping block. Redundancies should only ever be made as a last resort, because without us, you aren’t opening the doors. 

We need management in independent sector schools to acknowledge the importance of communication with staff. Good will and supposed benefits are not enough to keep us in line. We need compassion and sense, in a time where it is far easier to see a payroll number as a lottery ticket that can be thrown in the bin without a great deal of thought. 

If the independent sector in Scotland is to survive, we need a concentrated effort from management, including HMC and SCIS, to seek the best results for staff. We as staff need to ensure that employers grant us our rights to recognition, not so that we can  create combative workplaces, but to enable us to look after the collective good of all staff, including the management. 

Charles George is a Glasgow-based teacher in an independent school, and a member of EIS.