School workers in Newham, east London, stopped Avenue Primary School becoming a privately run ‘academy’ earlier this month. It took 19 days of determined strike action, starting in November – and saved several other local schools along the way.
The Socialist spoke to Avenue teacher Louise Cuffaro, the Socialist Party member and newly elected National Education Union (NEU) branch secretary who led the borough’s campaign.
Why did school workers come out on strike?
School workers are against academisation. They looked to the union to support them.
We discussed it at school level, developed a strategy; we had support from the NEU regional secretary [Socialist Party member Martin Powell-Davies].
We tried, before going on strike, to reach the governors, to say we wanted to put forward our reasons for being against academisation.
We weren’t being listened to. We realised it wasn’t an open and transparent situation. So we had to have something to bargain with.
We did that by explaining to the parents – but most importantly at Avenue by going immediately for an indicative ballot for strike action.
So it’s important to ballot straight away?
Yes, because under NEU rules you need an indicative ballot, followed legally by a postal ballot to members’ homes which takes a couple of weeks. If you win you have to give a couple of weeks’ notice to the authorities that you’re going to strike.
And the legal validity of the ballot only lasts for six months. So we actually had just taken another ballot just before they withdrew the academisation.
So they knew we had again reached the very difficult targets the law gives us. We had a 75% turnout [legal threshold is 50%]. We had 95% in favour of carrying on the action if necessary [legal threshold is 40% of all members, abstentions count against – requiring 53% in this case].
How did you organise to get past these undemocratic obstructions?
Like a military operation. We discussed it at a union meeting. And then we explained that we wanted people to bring their ballot papers in – either already filled in, or come to the union meeting and fill them in. We wanted to check off people’s names to know they’d actually voted.
We had four or five reps and active union members who religiously prompted people, “have you done it,” ticked off their names when they said they’d voted.
Without doubt, there were some members who didn’t feel confident. It’s quite a difficult situation for young teachers at the moment who feel their careers are on the line, and training teachers worry management might not pass them so they can’t fully qualify.
Some of them hadn’t come out. But I can say from the turnout of voting that definitely people who didn’t strike voted in favour.
I think that we started out with 25 or 28 union members maximum at Avenue, and because of the strike we’ve gone up to 76, 77.
What else made the strike successful?
The strike action has to be kept on. We went from one day, to two days pretty quickly, into three-day strikes. I don’t think the authority, or the individual schools, took it seriously. They thought it’d go away.
But we made it clear we were serious. Several other schools in the borough were looking at academisation, and when their staff threatened to strike over it, they said ‘we don’t want an Avenue’ and gave in.
Then when we had the three-day strikes we’d always make sure that we were informing the parents. We did many leaflets in multiple languages, which is something they didn’t do over academisation at the school itself. [In 2011 the Department for Education found 66% of Newham school students have a first language other than English.]
We explained to them why we were against academisation, and the parents campaigned too. Their fight, of course, was the consultation – or the lack of.
They ended up taking this to judicial review. In the meantime, they understood that we had to strike. They wanted another consultation, and they wanted the management to withdraw from academisation.
How did the parents’ campaign aid the struggle?
There were growing numbers of parents on our picket lines. They even went door to door in support of the strike.
After we’d done 13 days of strike action, that’s when another layer of parents – besides the parents that were already involved and had campaigned really hard over several months – were beginning to be worn out with the strike action.
The school was clearly willing to see the strike action carry on, no matter what it did to the children’s education – completely in contrast to what they were saying, which was that we were damaging it.
Of course they were willing to go to academy status no matter what that did to the children’s education as well, and it’s no surprise that the evidence shows that privatisation isn’t good for that.
But it was the next layer of parents who came forward and on the 14th day of strike action, and again on the 15th, occupied the office, demanding that the school come to agreement with the union.
The joint action between the parents and the staff is what, I think, ultimately brought them to the table. The local authority couldn’t ignore that school and the governing body wouldn’t speak to us.
We held a big open meeting for the parents at the end of April where the union could explain again why we were striking and they could air their frustrations. That meeting passed a resolution which supported the strike and demanded academisation be withdrawn, and that was unanimous.
But the crucial thing is the union group within a school needs to be organised and clear. The parents are very important, and our parents fought long and hard, but the parents can’t substitute for the union group.
Once they’re organised and understand the issues it’s a joint campaign – but it’s the strike which applies the decisive pressure.
What support did you get from your Labour councillors and MP?
I have to say the parents did put pressure on their local councillors. They did get them to draft a resolution against academisation. We had to firm it up a bit.
But we also decided to demonstrate when they presented that at the town hall to keep the pressure on. We organised an NEU march, with the parents, from Plashet Park [near the school] to the council on the night the motion was being heard.
Three parents and I went into the council chambers. There was an offshoot, a room with video links, so people on the demonstration could see and hear what was happening.
I feel convinced that affected whether [ousted Blairite] Robin Wales could carry on being the mayor. That forced Labour councillors to at least pay lip service to some kind of fight on something, after years of waving through academisation at other schools and presiding over cuts, as they still do.
But while he was still in, it seemed he was using the undemocratic power he has as a directly elected mayor, behind the scenes, to ignore the position of the council. His replacement, Rokhsana Fiaz, did publicly back the campaign in the end. Now she must prove she really represents something different.
Local Socialist Party members helped keep the pressure on as well. On top of supporting every picket line and campaigning on the streets, several members stood as TUSC candidates against Labour councillors who refused to back the campaign.
The parents did get [former minister under Blair] Stephen Timms, the MP, to a meeting early on. I think we knew far more about government policy on academisation than he did.
He said there was still forced academisation and tried to argue Avenue would have to become an academy anyway – which actually wasn’t really true even when it was forced; it was still possible to fight.
He said every school had to become an academy by 2020. We appraised him that wasn’t the case.
There was a legal challenge from the parents – what happened with that?
The legal challenge, as far as I know, is still carrying on. Their legal challenge was to the consultative process. They weren’t consulted.
There was no translation. The ‘consultation’ took place at the last minute; they’d been discussing it on the governors’ board for two years. Nobody put to them at any point – except the union – the case against academisation. The council, at that point, was stating it had to be ‘neutral’!
So there was nothing to look as if they were really consulting. That legal challenge was granted – permission to go to a judicial review in June/July.
And in the permission stage the judge was very clear, and defined what consultation is. From his comments you could tell he was concerned by the survey that had been carried out, where 132 parents voted against academisation; only four parents voted for it.
And the consultant who wrote the report advised the governing body that was a “significant minority” and they didn’t need to take any notice of it – because there are about 620 parents, so you can see that a large number didn’t vote. They were counting the non-voters as pro-academy!
And this legal challenge bought the strike some breathing space?
The day permission was granted we were on strike and we were at the court with them. And little did we all know, but that hearing was literally the day before the governing body intended to sign the final papers, the financial agreement.
So without that pause that the parents won by getting that judicial review… that was literally at the eleventh hour.
In principle whole thing was already agreed by the council, they agreed the transfer of land long before the pressure from parents and the strike forced them to state they were against it. That would have meant that, in spite of the councillors’ resolution, on Sunday 1 April we would have been an academy.
Did the parallel strike at Cumberland School, a Newham secondary, fall foul of these hidden processes?
The shenanigans in the last few weeks – it was not transparent. The union was demanding to see papers because the school was insisting it had to go head, that there was an “order.”
There is no ‘order’ until the final papers are signed. You can retract from it up to the final minute.
Despite members fighting bravely at Cumberland the management went ahead with it. But you have to say – this union group has grown in size, to over 100 members.
And on the day it was announced they had been academised they went into the meeting declaring they remained against academisation, they were a strong union, and were prepared to go on fighting for the rights of their members, their pay and conditions.
What’s the next fight?
School staff are already under the cosh because of extreme workload and cuts to pay. The NEU nationally is going to ballot on that and school workers and parents will need to stay organised to win that fight, and where they’re not organised they’ll need to get organised.
And although we’ve had the victory of the governing body withdrawing the threat of imminent academisation, in the letter the head says “this time.”
We know the crucial thing now is to press the re-elected Labour council to ratify their anti-academy policy and come out with clear statements for how they propose to support schools.
Ordinary people are getting more and more sussed. It’s crucial that Labour councillors do what they’ve been voted for to do, what they promised us ahead of the election and what people understand from Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto.
Expectations are high. They can’t just sit back and say they have no funds. They have to fight for funds.
Newham stands to lose over 1,000 teaching jobs under the government’s new funding formula. Councils can license schools to run budget deficits within the law.
They can also use their reserves and borrowing to stop cuts throughout council budgets within the law. Of course, if they end up having to break the law to fight the cuts, the Socialist Party rightly says they shouldn’t shy away from that either.
Rokhsana Fiaz replaced Robin Wales as Labour mayor on the promise that she represents a shift to the left. She and her council have a choice: fight alongside school staff and parents, or fight against us. They should set no-cuts budgets now and help build a fight to get the funding we need from the government.
The thing is, we have to carry on fighting. For everybody. And ultimately we’ll want the schools that are already academies to come back under local authority control.