Heads 'handcuffed' into anti-academy vows

Unions are using strike action to “handcuff” headteachers into signing pledges not to academise for up to five years.

National Education Union (NEU) members have held strike action at Catholic schools in the Diocese of Brentwood.

The diocese has outlined plans for eight new academy trusts to take over its local authority-maintained schools, although the diocese says the final decision is always down to the school.

St Bonaventure’s secondary school, in Newham, was facing three days of strikes for three weeks this month, after six days already.

However, on Tuesday the governing body – chaired by Tim Campbell, a former winner of the BBC show The Apprentice – signed a statement pledging the ‘outstanding’-rated school would not consider academisation for two and a half years.

St Angela’s Ursuline School in Newham, after one day of striking, last month agreed to not academise for five years.

But the statement issued by St Bonaventure’s, and seen by Schools Week, stated the school had “no current plans… to become an academy and we have no current plans to change the structure and governance to our school”.

One headteacher, who has experienced strike action due to academisation but who did not want to be named, said they “respect the rights of staff to strike, particularly where there are specific issues that senior leaders can address”.

But added: “What is more difficult to respect is action against an ideology or political standpoint. How standards are improved should be driven by a range of issues and influences that should be continually addressed and reviewed.

“We should not be handcuffing ourselves with promises that we might not be able to keep. We should be looking at opportunity, whatever that may be, to get the very best for our students.”

However, speaking last week, Louise Cuffaro, the NEU joint secretary for Newham, told Schools Week: “We are saying to the governing body, just agree that you will pause and give us a timescale.”

She added if governors at St Bonaventure’s are “not intending”  to academise currently, “why won’t they just agree that this is the timescale?” Cuffaro said that the diocese has designed a TUPE+ to ensure staff’s salary conditions are maintained, but claimed that “isn’t enough”.

Also affected is St Michael’s, a ‘good’-rated primary school in Newham, which has seen 12 days of strike action.

The NEU said it pays striking staff “as close as they can get to a day’s net pay”.

Speaking after agreement was signed at St Bonaventure’s, Cuffaro said it was an “important achievement that has been achieved through the solidarity of our members… We know our members [at St Michael’s] remain ready to take action if necessary to achieve this fair outcome.”

The Diocese of Brentwood says the final decision on whether a school should become an academy is for individual governing bodies to make, having consulted with staff and parents.

The diocese, which covers a large area across London and Essex, has already seen schools become academies.

Richard Simpson, director of education, said supporting schools in their choice to become academies is “one way in which we are working to continually improve educational outcomes for pupils.”

The St Bonaventure’s statement added that if there is a review of its decision in September 2022, it will enter into a full consultation with staff, union representatives and parents, with “no predetermined outcome”.

This doesn’t apply if the school is rated ‘inadequate’ and given an academy order direction by the government. The three schools did not respond to a request for comment.