Strike vote at Preston primary school over academy conversion proposal causes "Grinch" spat over whether walkout will hit nativity play
Governors at a Preston primary school where staff have voted to take strike action over a proposal for it to become an academy say that the move will have a “significant impact” on end-of-term Christmas plans for pupils – including their nativity play.
National Education Union (NEU) members at St. Matthew’s Church of England Primary School on New Hall Lane are set to walk out on five days during December after they were balloted in an ongoing row over the prospect of the school joining the Cidari Multi Academy Trust.
A consultation into the plan is set to close at the end of this week, but the union claims that there has been no attempt to resolve the dispute since an indicative vote last month suggested that staff were willing to strike over the issue. That stance was confirmed last Friday when the results of a formal ballot backed industrial action.
READ MORE >>> How Lancashire's toddlers coped with pandemic .
As the Lancashire Post revealed in October, the NEU said that there had been no “meaningful” discussion with staff about academy conversion – and claimed that parents were largely unaware of the possibility. That prompted an extension to the consultation period, but the concession has not so far averted the threat of a strike, with NEU members currently expected to down tools on 7th, 9th, 14th 15th and 16th December.
However, the school has today issued revised dates for its nativity plays, one of which – on 15th of next month – now clashes with the planned walkout. In a newsletter published on its website, headteacher Mark Mackley said that the change was at the request of infant class staff who “have asked for more time to prepare the children to give them every opportunity to put on a good show”.
A spokesperson for the governing body said that it was “disappointing that the days [union members] are planning to take action will have a significant impact on the children and the events that had already been planned for those dates”.
There is no suggestion at this stage that the nativity performances will have to be pulled – nor a pantomime also scheduled for 14th December. However, NEU Preston branch secretary Ian Watkinson hit out at the last-minute nativity date change – and said that if any events did have to be dropped, then Mr. Mackley would be “the Grinch trying to steal Christmas”.
“As part of the formal procedures around balloting [to strike], you have got to submit your dates well in advance – so all that was plotted out so that it did not interfere with any of the kids’ Christmas events.
“For the head to change those dates around so that they clash with the [industrial] action…is absolutely appalling. If he really wants the kids to have their Christmas nativity, he’s got plenty of opportunity to [schedule it] for dates when no action is taking place.
“And, actually, we still hope that they’re going to listen and get round the table,” Mr. Watkinson said.
The Post understands that the decision to reschedule the nativity plays was taken on Friday after staff had sought additional rehearsal time for the children. A party for pupils with good attendance was also already planned for 15th.
Speaking before the nativity clash emerged, Mr. Watkinson had appealed for talks to resolve the dispute over the academy proposal.
“Nobody wants [this] disruption, not least members of staff. These guys have worked their socks off throughout the pandemic, so for them to get to this point, I think they just feel like they haven’t been engaged [with] and that this is being done to them.
“It doesn’t feel like a two-way street at all, so it doesn’t surprise me that the staff feeling is so strong.”
A spokesperson for the governors said of the strike plan: “Out of 65 staff, represented by the major teacher and support staff unions, only 30 have voted to take action.
“There has been an extended period of consultation with parents, staff, unions and other stakeholders which is still under way with no final decision yet having been taken.
“It is important to note that the governors, who are the employers of the staff, would not be considering a partnership with the Cidari Trust if it posed any fundamental threat to the provision of education for the children, the identity of St Matthew’s as a school for the community or the to the conditions of service for staff.
“The governors believe that this proposed development will benefit all the children in our community.”
The NEU told the Post that their membership at St. Matthew’s had doubled since the academy proposal emerged – and that of those eligible to vote in the strike ballot when it was held, 86 percent did so, with 98 percent supporting industrial action.
Last month, the Post revealed the contents of a letter sent to governors, which had been 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’”.
It is understood that the school has since sought a meeting with members of all unions representing staff at the school, but that this has not yet taken place.
The Cidari trust, which is operated by the diocese of Blackburn, currently has 10 academies under its umbrella.
If a school becomes an academy, it is no longer maintained by the local authority – in this case, Lancashire County Council – and has some flexibility over its curriculum, staff pay and conditions and the length of the school day.