Ofsted has narrowly escaped strike action after a union ballot fell one vote shy of the statutory threshold.
Members of the PCS trade union have been considering a strike since staff were told they were expected to return to the office at least three days a week at the end of January.
But the numbers fell just short of the threshold introduced in the 2017 Trade Union Act that means unions can only take action if 50% of members who are able to vote do so – with 49.8% of voting members turning out in the ballot.
Of the 135 members who did vote, 78.4% backed strike action and an overwhelming 90.4% said they were willing to take action short of a strike.
The return-to-work requirement, which the union has called “unparalleled in other government departments”, was announced on 31 January before coming into effect on 7 February.
The union has said the result, while “disappointing”, shows the “strength of feeling” among those who did vote.
“Ofsted management would be foolish and negligent employers not to take this show of staff dismay seriously,” it said in a statement.
PCS’s negotiating team will now seek to meet with Ofsted management to discuss the ballot result and potential next steps in resolving the dispute.
Before opening the ballot, PCS said it took several steps to avoid the implementation of what it called the “rushed and ill-thought-out” return policy, which requires staff to spend at least 60% of their time in the office.
The change does not affect staff on home-working contracts, and an exceptions policy allows more flexibility or home-working arrangements for at-risk individuals.
As well as requesting a pause to allow for consultation, the union said it surveyed members and presented anonymised feedback to Ofsted, and proposed an alternative compulsory attendance and altered exceptions policy.
It also proposed bringing in industrial relations body ACAS to mediate the dispute.
In response, the schools regulator “restated that it will not reconsider the mandatory 60% office attendance requirement”, PCS said last month.
Ofsted declined to comment.