AQA strike: A tough decision but the right one

Two of the UNISON members who are taking strike action at exam board AQA explain why they were left with no option – as a hardship fund is launched to support them

AQA strikers and Christina McAnea outside UNISON Centre

For James Rose and Kate Smith, taking industrial action at examination board AQA was not an easy decision. But it was, they both say, the right one. At the end of August, on strike again, they headed south from Manchester with four colleagues and three organisers.

In London, with general secretary Christina McAnea, they took their message from UNISON Centre (pictured above) to the AQA headquarters in nearby Tavistock Square. It’s a simple one, summarised as a call to treat the workforce staff decently.

James is a preparation coordinator, working on quality control and standardisation. The latter is a process where, after students have taken their exams, staff “ensure that there’s a consistent marking standard across different examiners and they understand how to apply the mark scheme and what’s worthy of credit and what’s not, to ensure that we have good marking quality”.

Ultimately, it’s all “to ensure that students are getting fair outcomes”.

That’s something James is passionate about. He’s worked in a variety of roles at AQA for seven years, having started off as a temporary member of the staff in Manchester before his first permanent post in customer relations, but he particularly enjoys his current job, where he’s “working more face to face with the examiners”.

He describes how, particularly in the summer, the work is “to a very tight schedule” to make sure that grades are available on time, but stresses that this also needs to be done to “high quality”.

James Rose

In terms of the industrial action that UNISON members at AQA are now engaged in, James explains how the organisation tried to bring in a model of performance-related pay in 2019. The union was opposed to that on principle, wanting to retain the transparency that they felt existed in the pay structure that would have been replaced.

“We balloted for action,” he says, “and then they dropped their plans”. Then, in November 2021, the employer returned with new plans for performance-related pay.

“We were kind of saying to our members: ‘We need to approach this with an open mind. Just because we’ve rejected one model in the past, let’s see what they’ve got to offer’,” James notes – particularly as the union had worked constructively with management previously.

They won some concessions and a model that they felt “more comfortable with”. But the big problem that remains is that, for colleagues at the bottom of their pay scale, moving onto management’s new pay model would actually see them losing out on those increments and earning less than under the current system.

In other words, it would mean a pay cut – and that’s before even discussing the real-terms pay cut that an offer of 3% and an unconsolidated £500 one-off payment for 2022 – raised from an initial offer of 1.67% – would mean.

With inflation over 10%, 3% is a big pay cut

With inflation at 10% at the time of writing, the employer’s “3% with a couple of add-ons isn’t looking very good,” says James. “I mean, I didn’t think it ever looked particularly good, but it’s becoming harder and harder to defend”. He points out that the £500 was intended to cover any loss to the lowest-paid staff.

“But when we see what’s going on around us, we know that’s just not going to cut it.”

He says that the members want management to make an offer “that will protect us. We put in a lot for the organisation – this summer particularly has been very, very challenging from a work perspective.

“AQA relies on a lot of goodwill from its staff. We’ve got people who put in upwards of 200 hours overtime during a summer exam season and, at the end of that, you don’t want to then be swallowing a pay cut.”

James cites the scandal over exam grades being awarded by algorithm in summer 2020, early in the pandemic, as an illustration of the valuable work that UNISON members in AQA carry out. It might be, as he says, largely “unseen work”, but it most definitely “deserves a fair pay settlement”.

Kate Smith

Kate has just started a new role. Previously involved in assuring the quality of assessments and checking that the regulatory requirements set by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation are met, she is now project managing the new modern language reforms in French, German and Spanish.

It’s been challenging, “trying to make a good impact” at the same time as taking industrial action.

Kate started work at AQA 11 years ago as an assistant administrator and joined UNISON after the company said that it was going to axe jobs at that level. She discovered that the union was “a really great community”.

“Stepping away” from the work to strike this year was “the only option I had”, she says.

“The offer they’ve given us has put me in a position where I feel like I’ve got no option. But I have found it really challenging. While I feel in principle that I’m doing the right thing, I really don’t want to not be in work.

“Obviously I’ve talked about being in a new role, but I’d feel the same if I was still in my previous role, because I really care about what I do – that’s why I’ve stayed at AQA for this long.

“It’s really powerful and meaningful to be part of an organisation that has such an impact on your people’s lives. And it’s nice to feel that I’ve got some small areas where I can influence that.”

The union community has been a positive

She has, however, appreciated being on picket lines. “It’s been really great … getting to talk to people I wouldn’t normally talk to. That’s really helped me mentally.  I’ve found the positives in terms of the community of the union”.

As one of the staff on a higher wage at AQA, she thinks she might have a buffer against the cost of living crisis, “but the more powerful thing for me is being in branch meetings and hearing people on the lower scales saying that they’re having to go to food banks, considering whether they can take a secondary job, worried about being able to pay for energy.

“Hearing that really draws out the fact that 3%, when you look at inflation, is not enough for people.”

Kate also feels that attitudes have been compounded by the announcement that the Manchester office is to be closed until next April for a refurbishment that is said to be costing £8 million.

“I’ve not seen the plans, but based on what they’ve done at Milton Keynes, it’s very much a face lift to look what would be considered ‘dynamic’ now.

A question of priorities

She describes the Manchester office as “a bit dated”, but adds: “In terms of priorities, I would rather delay that”.

As Kate will be working from home full-time during the refurbishment, she’ll be using – and paying for – more energy. AQA has hired alternative premises for the period of the refurbishment, but whereas she estimates that there are around 600 staff in Manchester, the temporary office will only have space for around 80.

When asked if, in that situation, staff would receive any help with their energy bills, the director of finance said ‘no’, suggesting that having no travel costs would be adequate compensation.

As Kate notes, her energy bill has already risen from £80 a month to £250 a month, whereas travelling into the office by tram costs £6 a day for the average of two days a week she’s there. “There’s a big discrepancy”.

James is concerned at the refurbishment plans too. He says he knows that the organisation has a lot of reserves – and has enough money to have been offering £300 bonuses to temporary workers who are prepared to break the strike.

It’s not difficult to see why the strikers believe that their employer can do a lot, lot better.

UNISON branches can help the AQA strikers. A hardship fund has been launched and you can make donations via Unity Trust Bank Plc. The sort code is 60-83-01, the account number 20324685, and the account name Hardship Account.