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Mass picket outside Prince Henry Grammar School

On Wednesday 16th November, teachers in NASUWT and NUT at Prince Henry Grammar School (PHGS) in Otley took their second day of strike action against the proposal to turn the school into an academy.

Iain Dalton, Leeds Socialist Party

Socialist Party members joined the picket line to offer our full support for the protest and their campaign. The Socialist Party has participated in several campaigns opposing academies in Leeds and across West Yorkshire, helping to bring together teachers, parents and school students to fight the proposals, including in nearby Horsforth where we helped with others in Horsforth Against the Cuts to organise a 80 strong community demonstration against the proposals to turn the local school into an academy.

Academies represent a form of backdoor privatisation, taking themselves out of local authority control and therefore able to set their own pay and conditions for staff, as well as make changes to the school day and other admissions policy. Whilst the terms and conditions of ordinary staff members are attacked, it can sometimes be a rosier prospect for senior management – in nearby Wakefield, the head of Outwood Grange Academy has accumulated £1m over 4 years in their salary.

These proposals are being argued for in some quarters because the new academies will receive the portion of their funding that goes to the local authority and is used from there to provide services, such as special needs provision, payroll services and legal advice, to all schools in the area. However, that money would have to be used to pay for replacement services (at a likely greater cost), resulting in the likelihood of staff cuts to make up the shortfall.

In Otley there is huge opposition to the planned changes, reflected in the turnout on the day. Local councillors and town councillors are opposed to the plans, two well attended community meetings have voted to oppose the plans, and the governors voted in favour only by the tiniest of margins (10-9), prompting those opposed to resign in protest.

On the back of such opposition, campaigns against academies can win. Earlier this year in Kirklees, the council were forced to abandon their plans to turn Fartown school into an academy by a community campaign involving petitioning and lobbies. Crucially it was the threat of action, by parents in this case, saying they would boycott the school and picket it on the first day it opened as an academy.

Like the Con-Dem coalition and their cuts programme, the head teacher, Janet Sheriff, and Chair of Governors, Paul Tranter, think they can ride roughshod over the views of staff, students and the local community. They believe that if they force through the change to an academy in as short a time as possible then that will stop opposition to their plans growing.

But they are wrong. Teachers at the school have been forced now to take action before the deadline for conversion of the school on December 1st, and have rallied behind them huge community support.

Student Strike?

What was especially encouraging about the strike was the presence of a large number of students at the school joining the picket line outside the college. Many students were discussing how best to support the strike, with several parents also coming to the picket lines in support. This presence makes it clear that the academy plans are opposed by wide layers of the community.

It is important that this community support is built upon, with mobilisations for future picket lines and that members of unions in the school that aren’t striking are enocuraged to support the picket lines and the campaign in whatever means is possible.

One of the ideas that some students were discussing was to not go in on strike days in solidarity with the teachers. A strike by students could be a way of upping the pressure on the schools head teacher and remaining governors to back off the academisation plans.

But such a strike would have to be built for by leafletting on non-strike days and by a campaign amongst students on social media online. The experience of the students walkouts and demonstrations of last year has shown that this is possible amongst school and sixth form students as long as this is organised.

NASUWT and NUT members, as teachers, obviously cannot advocate or condone students missing lessons or damaging their educational prospects. But if students decide to do any sort of campaigning action against academies, then they can try and work to ensure that students are not punished for it. In the case of any victimisation of any student for peacefully protesting against the academisation, a campaign in defence of the student should be promptly organised drawing on support from the wider anti-academies networks, trade unions and community campaigns.

Students Must Organise

However, this student-teacher unity is being cut across. Within the school, the headteacher gave a very selective view of the issues around academies at an assembly yesterday. Additionally, whilst today the school was closed to pupils, tomorrow it will be open for years 11, 12 and 13, the older students who were most prominent on the protests.

Due to this and the upcoming pressure of exams, and also a worry that striking could be seen as undermining negotiations between the teachers and the school over academy status, tomorrow students have decided to join the protest prior to school, but go in to school.

It is important that the students at the school who want to support the teachers action and oppose the school becoming an academy meet to discuss the best ways to organise to do this. More importantly, this could diffuse any possible suggestions that students out in support of the teachers are somehow being ‘directed’ or ‘brainwashed’ by them.

This idea that student cannot think for themselves and decide their own views is ridiculous and condescending. The reality is that students are threatened by these attacks on education provision (as less staff, suffering from overwork is likely to reduce the quality of education despite teachers best efforts), but also by the wider attacks on education that academies are part of including the scrapping of the Educational Maintainance Allowance, the increase in tuition fees and wider privatisation and marketisation of education. Naturally students are seeking to unite with those also threatened by these attacks, their teachers.

Students organising under a clear banner such as ‘PHGS students against an academy’, should meet to democratically decide what action to take. The Socialist Party will support the decisions of such a democratic body and offer whatever support and assistance it can to help make this a reality.

Please sign the NASUWT petition against Prince Henry becoming an academy online @ http://www.leedsnasuwt.org.uk/lstpetition/