By Patrick Murphy, Leeds NUT and NUT National Executive (pc)
Over 60 teachers at Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley, Leeds, are involved in an intensive programme of strike action against plans to turn their school into an academy.
Members of the NUT and NASUWT started the action with a one day strike on 10 November but their unions announced plans to increase this to two days the following week (16 and 17 November) and three days the week after that. After talks to resolve the dispute broke down on Friday 18 November, a large meeting of union members voted overwhelmingly to stick to plans to strike this week. As a result they will walk out again from Tuesday 22 to Thursday 24.
It has become unusual to see school staff taking action against academy status, especially since the Con-Dem Academies Act, which allows some schools to convert on a very fast timetable and with little or no effective consultation.
The anger in Otley has been produced partly by some particular features of the academy process there.
First there was strong opposition on the school’s governing body from the start. A number of attempts to move to academy status were prevented by as many as 10 governors who were determined to defend its links with the local authority.
The decision to convert was made at a meeting which one of those governors could not attend and was carried by one vote.
In a naive move, nine of the anti-academy governors then resigned in protest thinking the fight was over and not wanting to be associated with the academy.
Two public consultation meetings were arranged by the school during the process. Both were well attended (80 and 100 people) and were almost unanimously opposed to the academy conversion. A vote held at the second meeting, at the insistence of the audience, was 72-1 against. A survey of staff, also carried out by the school, showed that two thirds were opposed to academy status. The largest union in the school, NASUWT, balloted members for strike action and action short of strike action in July and began some non-strike action at the end of the summer term. The NUT then balloted members in October and the two unions agreed to move to co-ordinated strike action in response to the decision to ignore all the consultation and convert.
The reason for the escalating programme of action is that governors are determined to turn the school into an academy from 1 December.
With only a few weeks to prevent this, the teachers had to make a huge impact in a very short period of time. Whether or not they stop these plans they have certainly had a major impact on the town.
There have been up to 50 teachers on picket lines and after the first day of action they have been joined by parents and sixth-form students.
Messages of support have flooded in not only from other unions but, most encouraging of all, from parents in that area. A Facebook group in support of the striking teachers has been joined by over 150 people and they have organised town centre leafleting and picketing support. Far from the debate being over, opposition to the academy proposal has never been stronger.
The industrial dispute is about the threat to terms and conditions of teachers whose contracts will transfer over to the academy from the local authority if this goes ahead. Last week the two unions offered to suspend the action on condition that the proposed conversion date was dropped and a ballot of parents held with both sides of the argument put in the ballot material to parents. This was rejected by the Head and Vice Chair of governors, presumably for fear that they cannot win the argument.
The Otley teachers have shown tremendous and all-too-unusual determination and principle in taking this action and they are being put under great pressure to give up. They have held firm largely because if the inspiring levels of support they have had from the local community and other trade unionists. On Tuesday 22 November a public meeting organised by the local town council will take place to oppose academy status and support the teachers with speakers from the NUT, NASUWT and the ex-governors.
The Otley strike and wider campaign is evidence that academies can still be fought and, against all the odds, it is not impossible that it could win.