Teacher who quit academy takeover school speaks out

Other teachers at Sywell Primary School go on strike today over academisation plans

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By Natalie Bloomer

Teachers at Sywell CEVA Primary School in Northamptonshire begin strike action today in protest against a takeover by the Peterborough Diocese Education Trust (PDET).

The move comes after a lengthy dispute between staff, parents and governors over the decision to become an academy. Although teachers will remain on site to supervise key worker children during the industrial action, they will not be teaching today or Thursday.

Until last month, local teacher Sonia Byrne worked at the school for 13 years. She left over the way the situation has been handled.

“It was a lovely place to work, we were a very supportive team and we really cared about the children and each other,” she says.

“These plans have been railroaded in, the governors and PDET haven’t listened to our objections or answered the questions people have. I didn’t want to work with people like that so I left.”

Sonia says staff were initially reassured by the governors of the school that it was safe from academisation but later found out about the plans when it was being discussed in the local pub.

“There wasn’t a proper announcement, the news was being shared around staff without us being told directly.”

The union representing staff at the school says it planned to hold a strike ballot over the dispute just before the pandemic hit but delayed it to avoid disruption during an already difficult time. 

“We’ve asked them to meet with us and to negotiate but we’ve heard nothing back” Nick Raine, senior regional officer at the National Education Union (NEU), says.

“The staff want to make sure that key workers can still bring their children into school so they will remain on site during the two days.”

A campaign led by parents and community members to stop the academisation has garnered support from many local people and even from groups fighting similar battles in other parts of the country. More than 850 people have now signed a petition against the plans.

“There is huge opposition to this locally, it’s unprecedented really to see this much support for a school campaign in a small rural place like Sywell,” Raine says.

“The staff have really been buoyed up by how much support they’re getting.”

The academies programme was first introduced under the last Labour government and was initially used to replace schools that were not performing well. This was later changed to include new schools in areas that needed extra school places. The programme was rapidly expanded during the Coalition years after the 2010 election. 

In Northamptonshire, just 107 of 326 primary schools are still maintained by the county council. 

The move to academies hasn’t always been plain sailing. In 2017 the Education Fellowship Trust which ran 12 academies in Northamptonshire requested to hand back its schools to the Department for Education - the first academy group in the country to take such action. 

In recent years there have been a number of campaigns to stop the academisation of schools in various parts of the country including London, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Dorset. Plans to turn a school in east London into an academy were axed in 2018 following a series of strikes and protests by teachers and parents. 

The national campaign group Anti Academies Alliance which is made up of parents, teachers, union members and politicians now has almost 10,000 followers on Twitter and more than 8,000 likes on Facebook.

In Sywell, parents have previously staged a protest outside the school involving the beeping of car horns aimed to highlight the need for governors and the academy chain to listen to their objections.

One parent said they have contacted the governors directly to express their concerns but haven’t had a response.

“I feel really let down. I have two children at the school and don’t know who the governors represent. Me and several other parents have written to the governors and had no response. They are supposed to represent us but they don’t reply. I don’t think they’ve thought about this carefully and haven’t considered the options.”

The NEU says the response from Northamptonshire County Council has also not been good enough.

“At times it’s felt like the county council has just washed its hands with schools like Sywell,” Raine says.

“I get the impression that because of all the chaos at the local authority and now the move to create unitary councils there is no accountability at the moment.”

Sonia has seen her salary slashed by half since leaving the school but she says she doesn’t regret her decision.

“This is where my own children went to school, it’s a real community school but that community has been torn apart by all of this. We just wanted a say, but we haven’t been allowed that.”

Update after publication:

A statement from PDET said:

“The governors of Sywell School made the decision to explore joining PDET in December 2019. It was felt that the school would benefit from the support that a multi academy trust (MAT) can offer. PDET is a MAT set up by the Diocese to maintain the Christian ethos of Church schools, whilst allowing them to become academies.

It has a good track record of providing school improvement and other back office support to schools.

In January 2020 PDET staff, including 4 serving Headteachers, met with school staff and then with parents to talk about what it means to be a PDET school / academy.

An application was submitted by the school to the DfE through the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) to convert to an academy. However, at that time, the RSC placed applications ‘on hold’ due to circumstances of the first lockdown. The application was considered again by the DfE in September 2020 and it agreed that the school could consult with stakeholders regarding conversion. The DfE approved the stakeholder consultation plan provided by the school. The stakeholder consultation ran from early November to 17th December. Stakeholders received information about PDET, responses to frequently asked questions and regular feedback from the school’s governing body.

A separate T UPE consultation took place, where it was explained to staff that terms and conditions would not change. During this process, which involved two meetings (9th December and 14th January) with the staff and union representatives, no issues were raised by any of the unions represented at the meeting about the TUPE process.

On 18th December the NEU informed the governors of the school they were balloting the staff on the matter in dispute, which is “Enforced change of employer.”

As a result of the ballot some staff have decided to take strike action on 26th and 28th January. On 15th January the governors of the school met and considered the reports on the stakeholder consultation and their own Due Diligence. They voted and decided to proceed with the academy conversion.”