By James Kerr, Lewisham NEU Assistant District Secretary
I am writing this blog directly to parents of students in the Leathersellers Federation in response to questions and criticisms of Prendergast NEU members’ decision to take extensive strike action against the proposal to convert the Federation into a Multi Academy Trust. I will let Prendergast members speak for themselves and attach their statement as an addendum and would encourage you to speak to them directly. I am writing because I have been referenced repeatedly in relation to the campaign and think it is important I try to state as clearly as possible my view on this situation.
The first thing to say is we fully understand and acknowledge that the action is highly disruptive. Unfortunately, that is the nature of strikes and, for those of us working in education, we get that disruption to children’s lives causes stress and struggle. We don’t opt for strike action lightly and we always exhaust other avenues before balloting members.
Some have argued that it is not our action that is the problem but the fact that it is ‘disproportionate’. There have been a significant number of days agreed by Prendergast NEU but this is in response to a complete unwillingness of the Governing Board to respond to staff’s opposition to MAT conversion. Industrial action isn’t a symbolic protest, it is designed to change the employer’s approach and, if we thought a one day strike would be enough to shift them, then that is what we would have called. As I’ll explain later in the post, we would suspend or cancel action immediately if certain conditions were met and the power is very much in the Governing Board’s hands on that.
What has become clear in the last few weeks is that the schools do not function without classroom teachers and support staff, regardless of how good leadership or governance is.
My appeal to you is, if you value our members’ labour, which we know you do because the withdrawal of that labour has caused such upset, then we would hope you also value our members’ views on this huge issue.
The Governing Board has not valued their opinions and implied in numerous ParentMail messages to you that they are naive, gullible and easily manipulated by sinister external forces who don’t have children’s interests at heart, namely Lewisham NEU officers Eleanor Davies (primary school teacher and Prendergast parent!) and me (secondary school English teacher who started working in Lewisham schools in 2008).
It was clear from the outset that our members had a deeply and widely felt opposition to MAT conversion, not because of spurious arguments we made, but because so many of them have worked in academies in the past and so have real lived experience to shape their opinion. Many have consciously chosen to not work in MATs by being at Prendergast because they disagree with the pedagogical and organisational patterns that have developed within so many MATs. We will be sharing a collection of testimonies from Prendergast members later in the week about their experiences of working in MATs.
It is worth recapping the timeline of this academic year to understand how we have got to this stage. In September, our members came back to school ready to spend the year focussing on educating and supporting your children. There was an awareness that there was the potential for national action on pay but no hint that there may be a local dispute of this nature on the horizon. Unbeknownst to them, the Governing Board already had a worked up proposal for academy conversion. This wasn’t shared or hinted at until a special meeting was put into the calendar for the week after the February half term. Staff were a little anxious that this meeting might be something serious so one of our reps approached Paula Ledger to ask what the meeting was about and was told it was “nothing to worry about”.
In that meeting staff were given a glossy presentation in favour of MAT conversion and told that a six week consultation would begin there and then on the proposal. Students were also given special assemblies on this with no opportunity for anyone with an alternative view to present their case.
Very well attended NEU meetings (bigger even than meetings held during the national pay ballot) were held within days in every school and motions passed opposing the proposal which included a commitment to take industrial action if all other avenues weren’t successful.. We had no recorded votes against those motions and only a handful of abstentions. This was communicated to Governors and meetings were arranged between them and our reps but they weren’t fruitful and it became clearer that the consultation was set up in order to have only one outcome, MAT conversion. Over the six week consultation, NEU participated in every formal consultation meeting (some had very low attendance and so many of you won’t have heard the arguments we made in them), distributed 40000 leaflets explaining our position, produced thousands of posters, held a big public meeting, supported parents opposing the MAT with a Saturday open morning in Ladywell, organised a Saturday demonstration of 400+, protested at Leathersellers Hall in the City twice, organised stalls and shared our views on social media. We asked if we could share a statement with you on ParentMail but this was ignored and at no time have we been invited to offer an alternative perspective within the formal consultation. Now the Governors are only paying serious attention to the organisation that represents the vast majority of its teaching staff because we have taken industrial action.
Another strange argument being raised by Governors is that this is all politically motivated. This is disingenuous. Whether with a big or little p, education policy is always a political issue. We are in one of the deepest crises in education in living memory; massive underfunding, a worsening teacher recruitment & retention crisis, Ofsted’s credibility in tatters and the whole system teetering. This is the result of Tory education policy and austerity in the public sector but the central plank of Conservative education policy has been the expansion of MATs. That’s what they’ve prioritised above everything else the profession has flagged up. So by enacting that policy, what the governors are doing is intensely political. They need to own that and be declarative and stop hiding behind claims of being ‘apolitical’.
My politics on education are built on a belief in comprehensive state education where schools are genuinely democratically accountable to their communities. I don’t hide that. If the teachers at Prendergast had politics that jarred with that view, I wouldn’t be listened to.
The ‘it’s a political campaign’ argument has also been thrown up because they wanted to construct a legal case against the NEU’s legitimate action and instructed Winkworth solicitors to send a series of (expensive) legal letters they have never followed up on. This argument about it being ‘political’ is designed to paint the picture that opposition to this MAT is driven by bureaucrats in offices in local or national NEU offices and not by the people who work with your children every day. A 95% YES vote for strike action on an 82% turnout is not the result of bureaucrats meddling but because there is opposition.
So why do we oppose academisation? It’s worth reading or rereading the leaflet we produced on this for detail. It’s not all about staff working conditions but also deals with pedagogy, student outcomes and wellbeing. You can find it HERE. The Governors have suggested they won’t be like all the other MATs and will do things differently but, it is hard to have faith that a body that has behaved in the way it has during this consultation period, and in the vote they took in the face of such opposition, is going to be the refreshingly attentive and open MAT they claim they’ll be (a separate blog post will follow on this point soon).
So are we just going to entrench ourselves around an immovable position and not compromise? No. We went to ACAS for a full day of negotiation in the first week of the strike to try to resolve the dispute. At that meeting we explained that we wanted the Governing Board to withdraw its proposal entirely but that we were willing to explore other options to enable us to suspend action. We proposed the setting up of a Governance Working Party to try to solve the issues around governance. We explained that we represent members in 23k workplaces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and could pool immense resources to try to solve this issue. We argued that a substantial delay would enable a working party to explore options sufficiently. If the Working Party couldn’t find a viable alternative, it would immeasurably strengthen their case for academisation. A delay would also enable all stakeholders to fully understand the meaning of this irreversible proposal and hear different points of view. An upcoming General Election could also change the political context schools are operating in. A delay would also avoid disruption during exam season and take the heat out of the situation. We suggested a working party, with agreed terms of reference, could work for up to a full academic year exploring all options, report in summer 2024 and then the consultation could reopen in September 2024 if necessary.
The Governing Board felt this was too long a delay so we anticipated a counter offer with a shorter timescale. Their counter was to offer to delay the decision on conversion from May 3rd 2023 to June 1st 2023 with no change in the conversion timetable. We didn’t feel that changed anything. They accepted our suggestion of a Governance Working Party but said they wanted it to run in parallel with applying for academy orders and starting the process of conversion. We questioned how this would work and whether a working party could genuinely explore a range of options when conversion was already in process.
We reiterate our desire to resolve this dispute and believe a decent delay is in everyone’s best interests and would enable us to suspend all of the action we have announced. We are open to suggestions on timescale for this in order for it to be workable. We hope to be in talks this week and will be successful in agreeing a way forward.
What is being proposed is not inevitable nor unstoppable. At St Ursula’s in Greenwich, after widespread opposition to them joining the South East London Catholic Academy Trust and a ballot for industrial action by NEU, a delay similar to what we are suggesting was agreed.
This proposal is irreversible and will have an impact for generations to come and will impact students currently in schools that aren’t part of the Federation. We think it is a decision worth taking time over and getting right.
There have been cases in Lewisham where schools have converted without strikes or huge opposition because our members have not been convinced, Childeric being an obvious example. We warned of potential future dangers and explained what could be done about it but there wasn’t sufficient opposition to warrant a campaign or strike ballot. We don’t manufacture dissent, we are guided by our members.
My ‘boss’ in this instance is not Kevin Courtney or Mary Bousted (NEU General Secretaries) but the teachers and support staff in membership at Prendergast.
The general feeling is that the Federation is working and members want to constructively address the concerns about governance and collaboration and, as educational experts with hundreds of years of collective experience in the classroom, have a lot to offer but it is hard for them to offer that when they feel they are being railroaded into a decision that they don’t feel takes into consideration their views.
As someone who has worked at a school immediately after academy conversion I’ve heard many of the arguments being made before and know how things can turn out. I have shared my thoughts, experiences and observations but had they not resonated, I would just be a man talking to himself.
We are fully committed to getting round the table this week and resolving this dispute. We don’t want to take anymore strike action unnecessarily, believe me. We hope that we can have an ongoing dialogue with a wider group of parents to discuss and debate our position on academisation and refine it based on your ideas too.