Preston school staff go on strike at academy headquarters

Striking staff at a primary school in Preston have said they would be prepared to suspend their long-running picket lines – if only their bosses agreed to talk to them about the issue that prompted them to walk out.

National Education Union (NEU) members at St. Matthew’s CE Primary on New Hall Lane again took time off from work on Thursday January 20 – the ninth time they have done so since a formal dispute began last month on plans to turn the school into an academy.

Three more days of action are due to take place next week before the school converts on February 1, when it has been agreed that it will become part of the Cidari Multi-Academy Trust, run by the Diocese of Blackburn.

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More than 40 of the school’s 65 staff participated in walkouts and pickets outside their workplaces on strike days. However, they also took their protest straight to the door of their future employer on Thursday morning – gathering outside Cidari’s headquarters in Blackburn and unfurling banners calling on the headmaster and governors of the school in Preston: “Listen to your staff “.

NEU staff representative and Grade 4 class teacher Julie Copeland says the school’s quiet response to teachers’ and support workers’ concerns left them feeling like they were ‘not valued”.

“Basically the governors are just ignoring us – there have been no sit-down discussions. At least out of courtesy, they could have come and talked to us.

“We took no action the first week after Christmas in the hope that they would agree a date [to meet] ahead of the planned strikes in January. The governors say we haven’t given them a good enough reason why we don’t want to become an academy – but they haven’t given us a good enough reason to.

“We’re being touted as the reason kids miss school, but we’ve tried everything to [avoid that] – and the only reason we do this is for the kids, no matter what.

“I know that [the academy sponsor] is the diocese and we are a parochial school, but they are [based] in Blackburn – we are in the heart of Preston and St. Matthew’s is a community school. The staff have known the families for years and they need to stay in the community – they don’t need someone else to run the school,” Ms Copeland added.

Upon arriving at Cidari’s offices, school staff were invited inside to voice their concerns, which Ms Copeland said the trust had noted and promised to send to governors to try to resolve facilitate a discussion.

While welcoming this step – and the “honest” exchange with Cidari officials – she warned that school staff were “committed” to their position and reiterated a previous request for the conversion date to be postponed. to September.

“That way it’s not rushed. [The governors] think February 1st will come and they will convert and everyone will forget about it – but we won’t.

When a school becomes an academy, it leaves the control of the local education authority – in this case, Lancashire County Council – and gains flexibility over its curriculum and can also set staffing conditions and length of the school day.

NEU Preston branch secretary Ian Watkinson said the union had an “excellent working relationship” with Cidari over schools which have been ordered to become academies following inspections by the ‘OFSTED.

“They have been there to act as a safety net for these schools – and we respect and appreciate that. [However], it is a very different situation and the director and the governors [of St. Matthew’s] resolutely reached out to Cidari for their help in driving a move to the voluntary academy – although almost all of the staff, parents and community are completely against it.

“Cidari is aware of this, [so] members are angry and think they are just choosing to ignore these widespread concerns,” said Mr Watkinson, who added that it was “astonishing” that principals chose not to engage with the staff about it.

Cidari currently has ten schools under its umbrella and has had eight consecutive OFSTED inspections which resulted in ‘good’ or better ratings.

St. Matthew’s currently has a “needs improvement” rating following the last visit it received from the regulator in 2017. Should the school fall into the “inadequate” category in a future inspection , it would automatically be subject to an academy order which would see it handed over to an academy sponsor decided by the North West Regional Schools Commissioner – although such orders could later be revoked in exceptional circumstances.

Responding to the protest at Cidari headquarters, Stephen Whittaker, director of education at the Diocese of Blackburn, said: ‘The trust has a strong reputation for caring about staff and working effectively and positively with all unions. As a church supported school, the Governors of St Matthew’s are the only body capable of considering and deciding what is best for their pupils. This is because they have both the legal responsibility and the best understanding of what best meets the needs of students.”

“Governors will, I’m sure, have considered all factors in making their decision.” Mr. Whittaker added.

St. Matthew’s extended the consultation period in its academy conversion proposal after staff first raised concerns in the fall. The final decision was made at the end of November. Responding to the claim that governors were currently unable to engage with staff, a spokesperson on behalf of the school said: “Position statements have been exchanged between the governing body and representatives of the NEU and are currently under consideration.”

Union opposes academies ‘regardless of religious ethos’

Following its coverage of the strike by NEU members at St Matthew’s late last year, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) was contacted by a resident of Preston who wondered whether the union would adopt the same radical opposition to the project of academization of Catholic schools. in the city.

LancsLive understands that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lancaster has told all of its schools that it has a vision to be part of a multi-academy trust by 2026. Seven Catholic primaries in Preston are currently considering academy conversion, some being in process. public consultation.

Preston NEU branch secretary Ian Watkinson said the union is “completely opposed to the privatization of schools anywhere – including the current intentions of the Bishop”. [of Lancaster] academicize a lot of schools”.

He added: “There’s every chance we’ll see industrial action in some of them – but that will depend on how strongly the members oppose it.”

Speaking specifically about the planned Catholic school conversions, Fr. Steve Pearson, communications officer for the Diocese of Lancaster, told the LDRS that it “pays to have proper consultation and keep people on board” – and has recognized that there was “some resistance to academisation” in Lancashire.

Separately, the LDRS has been made aware of a complaint filed with the NEU about two men distributing leaflets outside St. Matthew’s one afternoon in October.

A person identifying themselves as a ‘concerned resident’ of the area told the Post that they had seen leaflets – outlining the union’s opposition to the school’s conversion – being pushed ‘into the hands of anyone who on the street”, in tactics they alleged had “frightened many parents”.

Responding to the allegation, Ian Watkinson said the complaint had been thoroughly investigated by the regional NEU – and the union had concluded it was “completely inaccurate and completely unfounded”.

What is the difference?

Academy schools:

  • Are funded directly by government rather than local authorities;
  • Are not required to follow the National Curriculum, but must still teach a wide and balanced range of subjects, including English, Maths and Science;
  • Can set salary and conditions of staff, but existing staff are covered by regulations protecting their current conditions;
  • Decide on their own schedules and the length of the school day; and
  • Are operated by non-profit academic trusts.

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