A union has launched a formal grievance against England’s largest academy trust, urging it to pay £1.5 million to “backdate” last year’s pay rise for thousands of support staff.

But United Learning, which runs 78 schools across the country, said it is following the law – slamming accusations it is “withholding back pay” from staff including teaching assistants, librarians and school technicians.

The trust employs support staff on two different contracts.

Those who transferred to the trust when their maintained schools became academies have their pay reviewed each April, in line with other local government workers. Their pay rise for 2022-23 therefore came into effect a year ago.

Others who joined after schools transferred or chose to move to new contracts see pay rises implemented in September, like teachers. It meant their pay rose five months later than their colleagues last year.

Unison has announced it had launched a grievance – a formal complaint process requiring action from an employer – on behalf of more than 3,000 staff whose pay year runs from September.

‘No money is being withheld’

They say United Learning should backdate the pay rise for 2022-23 for those workers. It estimated this would be worth up to £800 per staff member and would cost the trust £1.5 million.

Not doing so is “creating a two-tier workforce by implementing different pay award dates”, the union claimed.

But United Learning said Unison’s claim that it is “withholding” back pay was “totally untrue”.

“We are, quite rightly, following the legally agreed negotiation process that we have in place for staff on United Learning contracts. No money is being withheld. No back pay is owed.”

They said support staff on United Learning contracts had different terms and conditions to those negotiated through negotiating body the National Joint Council, and the pay review date was one of a “very large number of other differences”.

It means that “every year, not just this year, the pay rise happens in September – as with teachers” and “over the years, the differences between the contracts have included more generous awards and higher pay”.

‘Grossly unfair’ some staff get ‘less pay’

But Unison’s head of education, Mike Short, said support staff at the trust “can’t afford to lose money they’re owed. They’ve earned it and desperately need to pay their bills”.

“It’s grossly unfair for staff to do the same job as colleagues but get less pay. The academy trust must right this wrong and make sure all support workers are paid the same.”

The union also challenged the trust’s assertion that its own contracts were more generous.

United Learning for its part warned that each contract “has its own legally-binding negotiating process”.

“We are following that process as we do every year. It is sad that, at a time when schools are already struck by industrial action and the challenges that brings for everyone, including their members, Unison is adding to this by inventing a dispute where none exists.”

The dispute raises the prospect of more problems for academy trusts, which are not obliged to recognise support staff pay negotiations for those on new contracts.

Schools Week understands other chains with a similar arrangement to United Learning could also face union action. Joshua Burke, an associate at Forbes Solicitors specialising in employment law, said the trust is within its right to adopt such a position.

However, he added: “The risk with this approach is as the unions say: it creates a two-tier workforce.”

Burke added that, given the size of United Learning, the union “could potentially respond by initiating a recognition process via the central arbitration committee which if successful, would see it bound by collective bargaining and any future pay awards”.

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