Preston primary school staff step up protest over academy conversion in demonstration at Cidari headquarters

Striking staff at a primary school in Preston say that they would be willing to pause their long-running pickets - if only their bosses would agree to talk to them about the issue that has prompted them to walk out.

By Paul Faulkner
Thursday, 20th January 2022, 6:42 pm
Updated Thursday, 20th January 2022, 7:36 pm

Members of the National Education Union (NEU) at St. Matthew’s Church of England Primary on New Hall Lane stayed away from work once again on Thursday - the ninth time they have done so since the start of an official dispute last month over plans to turn the school into an academy.

A further three days of action are due to take place next week ahead of the school’s conversion on 1st February, when it has been agreed that it will become part of the Cidari Multi-Academy Trust, operated by the Diocese of Blackburn.

More than 40 of the school’s 65 staff have been taking part in the walkouts and picketing outside their place of work on strike days. However, they also took their protest direct to the door of their future employer on Thursday morning - gathering outside Cidari’s headquarters in Blackburn and unfurling banners bearing an appeal to the school’s headteacher and governors back in Preston: “Listen to your staff”.

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NEU staff representative and year 4 class teacher Julie Copeland claims that the school’s muted response to the concerns of teachers and support workers has made them feel like they are “not valued”.

“Basically, the governors are just ignoring us - there have been no sit-down talks. At least out of courtesy, they could have come and had a chat with us.

“We didn't take any action the first week after Christmas in the hope that they would agree a date [to meet] before the strikes planned for January. The governors are saying 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 actually do it.

...but this banner message was directed at their current bosses back in Preston

“We are being painted as the reason the children are missing out on school, but we have tried everything to [avoid that] - and the only reason we are doing this is for the children, no matter what anyone says.

“I know that [the academy sponsor] is the Diocese and we are a church school, but they are [based] in Blackburn - we’re in the heart of Preston and St. Matthew’s is a community school. The staff have known families for years and it needs to stay in the community - it doesn't need somebody from somewhere else trying to manage the school,” Mrs. Copeland added.

Upon their arrival at the Cidari officers, school staff were invited inside to put forward their concerns, which Mrs. Copeland said the trust had noted and promised to send to governors to try to "facilitate a discussion”.

While she welcomed that step - and the “honest” exchange with Cidari officials - she warned that school staff were “resolute” in their stance and repeated a previous request for the conversion date to be put back until September.

Julie Copeland on the picket line outside St. Matthew's Church of England Primary School in December. Staff have been on strike for nine days across the past six weeks.

“That way, it’s not being rushed through. [The governors] think that 1st February will come and they will convert and everybody 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 a degree of flexibility over its curriculum and can also set staff terms and the length of the school day.

NEU Preston branch secretary Ian Watkinson said that the union has an “excellent working relationship” with Cidari in relation to those schools which have been ordered to become academies following OFSTED inspections.

“They have been there to act as the safety net they were established to be for those schools - and we respect and value that.

“[However], this is a very different situation and the headteacher and governors [of St. Matthew's] single-mindedly reached out to Cidari for their help to drive a move to voluntarily academise - despite almost all staff, parents and the community being completely against it.

“Cidari are aware of this, [so] members are angry and think they are simply choosing to ignore those widespread concerns,” said Mr. Watkinson, who added that it was “astonishing“ that school governors had chosen not to engage with staff over the matter.

Cidari currently has ten schools under its umbrella and has had eight consecutive OFSTED inspections which have resulted in ratings of “good” or better.

St. Matthew's currently has a “requires improvement” rating following the last visit it received from the regulator in 2017. 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.

In response to the protest at the Cidari headquarters, Stephen Whittaker, director of education at the Diocese of Blackburn, said: “The trust has a strong reputation for staff concern and works effectively and positively with all unions.

“As a church-aided school, the governors of St Matthew’s are the only body with the ability to consider and decide what is best for their pupils . This is because they have both the legal responsibility and the greatest understanding of what best meets pupil needs.

“The governors will, I am sure, have considered all factors in coming to their decision.” Mr. Whittaker added.

St. Matthew’s extended the consultation period into its proposed conversion into an academy after staff first expressed concerns at the prospect back in the autumn. The final decision was taken in late November.

Responding to the claim that governors were currently failing to engage with staff, a spokesman 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 'IRRESPECTIVE OF RELIGIOUS ETHOS’

Following its coverage of the strike action taken by NEU members at St Matthew's late last year, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) was contacted by a Preston resident questioning whether the union would be adopting the same hardline opposition to the proposed academisation of Catholic schools in the city.

The LDRS understands that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lancaster has told all of its schools that it has a vision for them to be part of a multi-academy trust by 2026.

Seven Catholic primaries in Preston are currently considering academy conversion, with some in the process of public consultation.

Preston NEU branch secretary Ian Watkinson said that the union is “completely opposed to the privatisation of schools anywhere - including the current intentions of the Bishop [of Lancaster] to academise a raft of schools”.

He added: “There is every chance we will see industrial action in some of those - but that will depend on how strongly members are opposed.”

Speaking specifically about the planned Catholic school conversions, Fr. Stephen Pearson, communications officer for the Lancaster diocese, told the LDRS that it “pays to have proper consultation and keep people on board” - and acknowledged that there was “some resistance to academisation” in Lancashire.

Separately, the LDRS has been advised of a complaint made to the NEU about two men handing out leaflets outside St. Matthew’s one afternoon back in October.

An individual identifying themselves as a “concerned resident” of the area claimed to the LDRS that they had witnessed fliers - outlining the union’s opposition to the school's conversion - being pushed “into the hands of anyone on the street”, in tactics which they alleged had “frightened many parents”.

Responding to the allegation, Ian Watkinson said that the complaint had been thoroughly investigated by the NEU at a regional level - and that the union had concluded that it was “completely inaccurate and had no foundation at all”.

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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