By Gavin Mackintosh-
G.C.S.E and A level pupils across the country could face delays in receiving their exam results this summer, a union has claimed, due to strike action over a pay dispute at England’s largest exam board
Around 160 AQA staff, including those who arrange the setting and marking of exam papers and issue results, are being balloted for strike action after years of below-inflation wage rises. The union has criticised the workforce received a paltry 0.6% pay increase, says the union.
The workers have already rejected a 3% offer, which the employer was only prepared to pay if the unions (UNISON and Unite) agreed to bring wage talks to an end.
AQA staff are calling for an increase that keeps pace with the rising cost of living and which makes up for the many years that their pay fell way short of inflation.
Representatives of Unison say attempts to resolve the dispute at conciliation service ACAS have been to no avail, as AQA have shown no flexibility.
A spokesperson for Unison told The Eye Of Media.Com that AQA staff have been struggled due to insufficient pay.
”staff have been having to take loans and holding second jobs to cover basic expenses, it’s quite bad.
” Arbitrators are likely to get involved, but their views or recommendations will not be binding. AQA can in principle impose their pay on staff”.
AQA staff are based in two offices in Guildford and Manchester.
– In a recent survey of AQA staff, a quarter (27%) say they are unable to pay their household bills and 18% are looking for second jobs just to make ends meet. More than a third (36%) are either considering or have already taken out loans just to cover basic household expenses, while one in eight (12%) are skipping meals because they can’t afford to eat.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union with more than 1.3 million members providing public services in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.
Senior managers at the exam board have also angered workers by asking them to sign new contracts, which includes the low pay rise UNISON has rejected. AQA has told its workforce that it will consider using fire and rehire tactics to force through the changes.
Lizanne Devonport, Unison north-west regional organiser, said AQA is “letting down not just its staff but pupils too, by holding down pay.
“No one wants to cause disruption to students and teachers in the first summer back in exam halls since the pandemic, but the employees feel like they’ve been left with no choice.”
‘ AQA said “threats of disruption are nonsense” and “designed to needlessly frighten students and teachers”. The board has plans in place to ensure industrial action wouldn’t impact results day, a spokesperson said.
Many of the 160 staff are not involved in setting and marking exam papers, they added.
However, the exam board has not addressed the discontent surrounding pay which is threatening to delay exam results. The threat of disruption follows two education unions – with a joint membership of over 750,000 – vowing to consult on strike action in autumn unless the government gives teachers inflation-busting pay rises.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said a strike would be “unforgivable and unfair”.
AQA said its pay offer comes on top of additional incremental increases for staff not at the top of their pay grade, meaning the average rise is 5.6% – their biggest pay increase for two decades.
AQA staff are wholly dissatisfied with their pay and claim to have had below pay for the past 2 years.
Staff were told those who do not opt into the changes, which also include a new pay framework, by June will face consultation meetings in July.
AQA told staff this month there could then be “two extremes” – allowing staff to remain on the current pay framework with a 1.67 per cent rise, or “dismiss and re-engage”.
The unions claim this is a “fire and rehire” process. AQA said it has not made any decisions about what to do with staff who choose not to opt into the new framework.
If staff vote in favour of strike action, the strike would take place this summer.
Unite is also considering an industrial action ballot. The union would not say how many AQA staff were members.
Staff at AQA say they feel very let down over pay concerns and feel plans are being made to coerce them to accpet whatever they are offered.
There are also concerns that staff will not be at their best if they are forced to accept below standard pay.
Another said: “Many of us have done our jobs for a long time and are dedicated to public service. Exam board employees work miracles silently in the background to ensure that results are issued on time year after year. But we’ve reached the point where enough is enough.”
Another accused the board of being “content to watch its loyal, long-serving employees fall further and further behind on pay to the point where some of us are struggling to survive”.
Devonport called on AQA to “come back to the negotiating table, make a serious offer and stop threatening its dedicated staff”.
The charity saw its income drop by 28.9 per cent in the last financial year. Its net income before investment gains and losses was £2.9 million, down from £20 million in 2020. It equated to an operating margin of two per cent, a “considerable reduction” on the previous year.
“Rather than using its cash reserves to help employees cope with the spiralling cost of living, it has provoked an unprecedented strike ballot,” Devonport added.
An AQA spokesperson said the pay rise was “affordable and higher than many organisations – so it’s disappointing we haven’t been able to reach an agreement with the unions, who don’t speak for the vast majority of our staff.
They have “already made exceptional concessions” and “after already exhausting the dispute resolution process, arbitration would only delay things further”.
The exam board, which has 1,200 staff, provides 62 % of GCSE and 45 %.
One AQA worker said: “This is the first time staff have ever done anything like this. Many of us have done our jobs for a long time and are dedicated to public service.
”Exam board employees work miracles silently in the background to ensure results are issued on time year after year. But we’ve reached the point where enough is enough.”
Another said: “AQA says social mobility is at the heart of its charitable purpose. However, it’s content to watch its loyal, long-serving employees fall further and further behind on pay to the point where some of us are struggling to survive. AQA is most definitely failing when it comes to staff pay.”
UNISON North West regional organiser Lizanne Devonport said: “AQA is letting down not just its staff but pupils too by holding down pay.
“Rather than using its cash reserves to help employees cope with the spiralling cost of living, it’s provoked an unprecedented strike ballot.
“No one wants to cause disruption to students and teachers in the first summer back in exam halls since the pandemic, but the employees feel like they’ve been left with no choice. AQA must come back to the negotiating table, make a serious offer and stop threatening its dedicated staff.”