Teachers and staff at St. Matthew's Primary School in Preston will 'wear black' to show sadness at it becoming an academy next week

Striking staff at a school in Preston say they will wear black on the day it becomes an academy next week.

By Paul Faulkner
Wednesday, 26th January 2022, 6:42 pm
Updated Wednesday, 26th January 2022, 6:58 pm

Members of the National Education Union (NEU) at St. Matthew’s Church of England Primary School on New Hall Lane have staged a dozen days of walkouts since the beginning of December in protest at plans for the school to join the Cidari Multi-Academy Trust, which is part of the Diocese of Blackburn.

They have called on the school’s governors to pause the conversion, which is due to take place next Tuesday (1st February). They claim that their opposition to the change has not been properly considered.

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St. Matthew's year 4 class teacher Julie Copeland with National Education Union general secretary Kevin Courtney on the picket line on New Hall Lane

Last week, union members descended on Cidari’s headquarters to make their concerns known to their future employer and demanded that the trust did not take control of St. Matthew’s until September. After the meeting, Cidari said that it would attempt to “facilitate a discussion” between the school’s governors and its staff.

However, the chair of governors has now written to teachers and support workers telling them that any delay would cause “prolonged uncertainty and anxiety for everyone concerned” – and confirming that the school will take on academy status as planned next week.

More than 40 of the 65 staff at the school have been taking part in industrial action over the past seven weeks, with a final, thirteenth walkout happening on Thursday. NEU representative and year 4 class teacher Julie Copeland says that when the conversion comes, she and her colleagues will be moved to mark it in sombre fashion.

“We’ll all be wearing black next Tuesday. We are not being disrespectful [to anybody], but the fact is that the school as we know it will have gone.

The penultimate day of strike action at St. Matthew's Primary School on Wednesday morning

“The governors are hoping that the school will convert next week and then everything will be forgotten – but I don’t know how they expect us to do that, because they still haven’t sat down with us [for talks].

“Just this week, pillars have been taken out at the front of the school that have been there since 1891. It feels like they are trying to get rid of the past and move to a bigger, brighter future – and obviously we all want what’s best for the children, but we don’t believe this is best,” Mrs. Copeland said.

NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney joined those whom he said were displaying an “astonishing degree of solidarity” on the picket line on Wednesday morning. He told the Post of his “surprise” that Cidari would want to take on a school “where there is such strong opposition” to academisation.

He added: “It’s not a good start to the relationship that they are ignoring the wishes of the staff. We have got a good negotiating relationship with Cidari and we would continue to represent members well [in the trust’s other schools], but Cidari should be listening to what the staff in this school say.”

Strike action has been taking place over plans for St. Matthew's to become an academy

In the letter sent to staff this week, St. Matthew’s chair of governors James Atkinson praised them for being “passionate that the right thing is done and that it is for the benefit of all our children” – and he stressed that the governing body does “care about the feelings of all who are hurting at this stressful time”.

However, he said that after considering the points raised by union members during their recent meeting with Cidari, the governors “overwhelmingly” believed that academisation was “the right way forward” – and that any delay would be “detrimental to the education and wellbeing of our children and their families”.

Mr. Atkinson added: “I pray that going forward from 1st February with Cidari we will be able to come together to build on the progress that has been made, put behind us the anxiety and embrace the new opportunities with the Cidari family for the benefit of all our children, families, staff and the local community.”

St. Matthew’s was handed a “requires improvement” rating when its last OFSTED inspection report was published in November 2017. If the school were to drop into the “inadequate” category at a future visit, it would automatically be subject to an academy order which would see it handed to an academy sponsor not of its choosing.

Mr, Courtney said that if such a fear were driving the academisation plan, he believed it was unfounded.

“We don’t accept that argument – we think the school wouldn’t fail an OFSTED inspection.

“[It was given] ‘requires improvement’ last time, but they think that they have improved and [the staff] want OFSTED to come, because that would be more evidence that there would be no reason for [the conversion] to happen.

“Lancashire County Council has a very good reputation for supporting its schools and there is no evidence that schools improve faster when they become academies rather than when they are supported by local authorities,” Mr. Courtney added.

In response to the issues raised by St. Matthew’s staff and the NEU, Matt McIver, Cidari’s chief operating officer, said that the decision to convert was one taken by the school’s governing body “after a six-week, well-publicised statutory consultation period which was extended at the request of the NEU”.

He added: “It would be inappropriate for Cidari to attempt to influence that process. This was something reiterated by the NEU representatives at a meeting on 18th October. As such, the trust has refrained from public comment or social media engagement out of respect for the process.

“Trust senior leaders have met with St Matthew’s staff on several occasions during the consultation. Those staff have also met with colleagues from across the Cidari family to learn more about our organisation, our shared values, community focus and commitment to serving our distinctive communities.

“They were able to challenge what it means to be a part of our trust, a not-for-profit organisation, grounded in the wider Lancashire area, with volunteer trustees focused on delivering excellence for all our young people within a shared Christian ethos.

“Our trust has an excellent record in supporting and empowering local leaders and colleagues to improve outcomes and life opportunities within their academies. We apply the national pay terms and conditions frameworks or better to our workforce, supported by strong formalised trade union relationships established over eight years.

“We now look forward to moving forward as St Matthew’s becomes a valuable part of our Cidari family, but acknowledge the strength of feeling and anxieties within some of the staff. As we welcome them into our family of ten academies, we will now work over the coming days and weeks with all parties to positively focus the passion they have shown for their school and community as Cidari supports them and St Matthew’s on the next exciting stage of its improvement journey.

“It is greatly to their credit that, throughout their campaign, the NEU and its members emphasised a robust commitment to that school improvement focus, and we look forward to seeing the results of that commitment in the days to come,” Mr. McIver added.

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