Preston primary school forced to shut by academy strike as staff insist: 'We're doing a good job'

Striking staff at a Preston primary school which plans to become an academy say that they should be given the chance to show how much the school has improved before any decision is made about its future.

By Paul Faulkner
Tuesday, 7th December 2021, 2:31 pm

St. Matthew’s Church of England Primary School has been forced to close today for the first of what are planned to be five days of industrial action by members of the National Education Union (NEU), who make up more than 60 percent of its workforce. Teachers and support staff picketed all of the entrances to the New Hall Lane building from early this morning in an ongoing row over the school’s plan to join the Cidari Multi Academy Trust from 1st February.

Year 4 class teacher and NEU representative Julie Copeland told the Lancashire Post that the process had been “rushed” - and claimed that academy conversion was being pursued because of a fear that the school would be forced down that route after its next OFSTED inspection.

When the school was last visited by inspectors in 2017, it was given a “requires improvement” rating. If it were to drop into the “inadequate” category at a future inspection, it would automatically be subject to an academy order, which would see it handed to a sponsor decided by the North West Regional Schools Commissioner – meaning that it would have no say over the academy chain that it joined.

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National Education Union members striking at St. Matthew's Church of England Primary School on Tuesday morning (image: Neil Cross)

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Preston primary school strike is on after academy conversion plan is confirmed

However, Mrs. Copeland says that staff would prefer to wait for the school to be judged by the regulator - and not “jump before we are pushed”.

“[It has] been painted that the reason the school is doing this is because the teaching is inadequate [and] that we’re not doing our jobs.

“We’re under no illusions, we know where we are - but we have improved so much and put so much hard work in.

Teacher Julie Copeland says that staff concerns over plans for St. Matthew's to become an academy in less than two months have not been listened to (image: Neil Cross)

“Why are we [converting] apart from the fact that [the school is] frightened of another OFSTED? But the staff aren't - I've never known another school where all the members of staff say, ‘Can we have an OFSTED, please?’

“Let them come - and if they force us into an academy [chain], that’s different - but we’re not being forced [at the moment] and nobody can give us a good reason why we're doing it.

“The staff have been through a turbulent five years - we had no head for two years and we have kept that school going and everything that has been asked of us, we’ve done. We have gone above and beyond - and all we wanted was for them to listen and not rush,” said Ms. Copeland.

She added that the academy controversy was causing some staff to leave and others to consider it - thereby risking the stability that the school had managed to achieve.

Tuesday's strike was the first of five planned during December - and more walk-outs could take place in the new year

Initially, the plan was for St. Matthew’s to join Cidari - which is operated by the Blackburn Diocese - on 1st January, but that has now been put back by a month. A consultation period into the proposal was also extended by four weeks at the end of October.

Although governors have met with staff over the issue, NEU Preston branch secretary Ian Watkinson says that the governing body has not sat down with union representatives, as has been requested of them.

He described that as a “failure to engage” - and warned that there could be further walk-outs in the new year.

“We are waiting for a response from the governors and we hope to hear from them soon - nobody wants to have got to this point.

“[The delay to conversion] provides more of an opportunity to get this resolved, but, equally, more opportunity for additional strike action. We are keen to avoid that, but the ballot remains open and we can set [new] dates with seven days’ notice,” said Mr. Watkinson, who added that staff had been given support from parents passing by the picket line this morning.

St. Matthew’s has been approached for comment on today’s industrial action. In a statement issued last week, when it was confirmed that the strikes would be going ahead, a spokesperson for the governing body said:

““Following the conclusion of the extended period of consultation, the governors of the school met this week to consider all the information they had and resolved to convert to an academy and join Cidari, the Blackburn Diocese Multi Academy Trust which has a proven track record of working with schools and their communities for the benefit of the children.

“The governors note, with sadness, the planned action by the NEU to take place over five days in the run up to the end of term.”

Further strikes are currently planned for 9th, 14th, 15th and 16th December.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

Academy schools:

***are funded directly from the government rather than local authorities

***do not have to follow the national curriculum, but must still teach a broad and balanced range of subjects, including English, Maths and Science

***can set staff pay and terms, but existing staff are covered by regulations protecting their current conditions

***decide their own term times and the length of the school day

***are operated by not-for-profit academy trusts

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