One of England’s largest academy trusts has been issued with a “final warning” by unions over job cuts in what they claim is an unprecedented move that could lead to a strike by staff.
In an intervention that is the first of its kind since the advent of academy trusts, eight unions representing teachers, leaders and support staff working for the David Ross Education Trust have written to the chain’s sponsor, the Tory donor and businessman David Ross, after talks between the two sides broke down.
The trust has been criticised over plans to cut up to 40 support roles across its schools as part of a £1 million cost-saving drive.
Further talks between unions and the trust will now be overseen by the conciliation service Acas, and although leaders are hoping for a “swift resolution”, officials say the matter could escalate as far as a ballot of staff for potential industrial action.
It is the first time that all eight unions – the NUT, ATL, NASUWT, NAHT, ASCL, GMB, Unite and Unison – have threatened action on this scale against a single multi-academy trust in England, and follows months of discussions about DRET’s plans to save £1 million.
DRET has continually failed to communicate and provide the information needed
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said the unions were faced with “no alternative” but to issue the formal written warning. He also called for a quick resolution.
Russell Hobby, from the National Association of Head Teachers, said his members were “concerned about the detrimental impact these proposals could have for both safeguarding and health and safety in the schools in this trust”.
It follows a difficult few months for the trust, during which its chair, the former education secretary David Blunkett, and several other senior officials resigned, and documents showed problems with its finances.
According to its 2016 accounts, the trust’s net assets dropped from £4.4 million in 2015 to £846,000 in 2016.
At the same time, the amount in the trust’s endowment fund has fallen from £2 million to £161,000 over the same period.
The fund is the means by which the trust is supported financially by its sponsor: the businessman and Tory donor David Ross under his charity the David Ross Foundation.
In March, the three support staff unions admonished the trust for its plans to spend almost £800,000 on its central teams next year while cutting jobs and school budgets.
They also criticised increases in the amount schools are charged for back office services such as payroll and human resources from £2 million to £3.4 million, but DRET says this simply reflects the trust’s growth.
Now the education unions have joined the fight, which means that the trust could face action on a large scale by staff working at all levels of the organisation, including management.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, claimed that cutting support staff would mean “less support for children who need most help and put extra pressure on other staff”.
“DRET has continually failed to communicate and provide the information needed,” she said. “We hope the planned talks can bring about a swift resolution.”
Kevin Courtney, the National Union of Teachers general secretary, said it was “essential” that the trust abandons its proposals, while Chris Keates, who leads the NASUWT, warned the impact of the job cuts had “not been fully evaluated”.
David Harrison, DRET’s director of operations, said the trust had been developing proposals to “better use the expertise of our administration staff to enhance classroom learning across our network”.
“The education sector as a whole is facing financial pressures, so it is right that we utilise the skills of staff to ensure that our students continue to make significant progress and our academies get positively recognised by Ofsted,” he said.
“We have engaged with the unions for a very significant period of time over these plans. Up until recently, this relationship has been productive and positive, and we are surprised that they have chosen to adopt a different approach over recent weeks.
“The trust has already contacted Acas to try and resolve the issues that the unions are raising, and we look forward to meeting union and Acas representatives at the earliest opportunity.”
Harrison claimed that the majority of staff had been “very understanding” and “appreciate that our desire to improve education outcomes are at the heart of the proposals”.