Preston primary school staff could walk out over academy plan

Staff at a primary school in Preston could take strike action over a proposal for it to become an academy.

Saturday, 23rd October 2021, 7:45 am
St. Matthew's Church of England Primary School on New Hall Lane in Preston could convert into an academy under a plan being considered by its governors (image: Google)

A consultation was launched earlier this month into the prospect of St. Matthew’s Church of England Primary School on New Hall Lane joining the Cidari academy trust, which is operated by the Diocese of Blackburn.

However, staff members have come out in opposition to the plans, which they claim have not not been the subject of “meaningful” discussion – either with them or the parents of children attending the school.

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Ian Watkinson, the National Education Union's Preston branch secretary, says that the opposition of staff to academy plans at St. Matthew's Church of England Primary School must be taken into account

The school’s governing body has now said it will extend what was initially planned to be a three-week consultation period by a further month, so that it now ends on 26th November.

The National Education Union (NEU) welcomed that concession, but said its members were disappointed that other “concerns and sentiments“ expressed by staff earlier this week had not been addressed.

The Lancashire Post has seen a letter sent to governors, which was signed by more than 40 staff, in which those working at the school said that they had been given the impression that academy conversion was “a ‘done deal’; not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ – and that it is ‘better to jump than be pushed’”.

“We now know, thanks to the support and intervention of our trade unions…that this is absolutely not the case – and, as such, we strongly disagree with the proposed academisation of St Matthew’s,” the letter added.

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown says he would back staff if they decide to strike over the St. Matthew's academy proposal

In spite of a response from chair of governors James Atkinson noting the progress made by the 10 current Cidari academies since joining the trust, St. Matthew’s staff voted against the school’s conversion in an indicative ballot on Thursday evening. If it became an academy, the school would no longer be maintained by Lancashire County Council and would also have some flexibility over its curriculum.

Staff will now be balloted over whether they want to take “discontinuous industrial action” – meaning any future walk-out would take place on a series of individual days, with normal working in between.

The NEU leafleted parents collecting their children on Wednesday afternoon, ahead of a meeting to which they had been invited by the school to discuss the plans. However, Preston NEU branch secretary Ian Watkinson said that most parents were unaware of the academy proposal, which they had been advised of in a digital message.

He added: “It’s pleasing that governors have recognised that meaningful consultation hasn’t yet taken place – and that the timescale they had set wasn’t reasonable.

“We just hope that staff and all community stakeholder voices are taken into account, as it’s clear from staff at the moment that they are completely opposed to [academy conversion],” Mr Watkinson said.

Headteacher Mark Mackley said in a statement in response to staff concerns: “The governors of St Matthew’s School are currently undertaking a consultation process with staff and the community over their proposal to convert to an academy and join the Cidari Multi Academy Trust, established by Blackburn Diocese in 2013.

“Cidari has 10 Church of England academies serving communities in Lancashire, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen.

“At the request of the governing body, they are actively engaging with staff and encourage the parents and community to also engage with the process via the channels that have already been shared with them.

“The consultation period has been extended to Friday, November 26, closing at 4pm, in order for the governors to have the benefit of hearing everyone’s views,” Mr. Mackley added.

St. Matthew’s was given a “requires improvement” rating when its last OFSTED inspection report was published in November 2017, but was praised during a remote visit last year for helping pupils to keep up and catch up during the disruption caused by the pandemic.

If the school 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 an academy sponsor decided by the North West’s Regional Schools Commissioner – although such orders can later be revoked in exceptional circumstances.

Academy conversion – either by choice or compulsion – would mean St. Matthew’s would leave the local authority family of schools in Lancashire. As a so-called “voluntary aided” faith school, it is currently maintained by Lancashire County Council, but its governing body controls its admissions arrangements and the Diocese of Blackburn contributes to some building costs.

The diocesan director of education, Stephen Whittaker, said: “Blackburn Diocese has over 180 schools across the region which are a mixture of maintained schools and academies.

“Our primary concern is that these church schools are well supported by either a local authority or strong multi-academy trust that will uphold the Church of England foundation and it is for local governing boards to decide the best structure to meet the needs of the children they serve.

“Cidari is a strong multi-academy trust that was formed by the diocese for schools wishing to convert to academy status and has a proven track record of school support and improvement, enhancing pupils’ experiences, investing in staff and has good relationships with all the trade unions at regional level,” Mr Whittaker said.

However, Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said that there was “no appetite” for the conversion – and added that he would back staff if they decided to take strike action.

“We do want to see schools improve, especially after the pandemic – but the way of doing that is not to take control away from local communities through their elected representatives. Things can be improved in other ways,” Cllr Brown said.

The Post understands that the governing body has offered to facilitate a Zoom call between St. Matthew’s staff and those working for existing Cidari academies – pointing out that the trust has a “very clear family ethos” and a “total commitment to the quality of education, pupil life chances and opportunities”.

In the NEU letter warning governors of the strike ballot, the union said that it would welcome a formal meeting with the governing body during the first week after half term.

The staff vote to oppose academy conversion was unanimous on a 79 percent turnout.

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