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Teachers and staff at a Catholic school in Chadwell Heath will strike on Thursday to oppose joining a multi-academy trust.
On March 2, St Bede’s Catholic Primary School and Nursery, which has around 450 pupils and has Ofsted’s highest ‘outstanding’ rating, will begin a four-week consultation on plans to convert to an academy and join the Good Shepherd Trust.
Campaigners argue that converting, which cannot be reversed, would allow trustees to reduce wages, hire unqualified teachers, avoid scrutiny from Redbridge Council.
The trust, which currently runs seven east London schools, insists converting will improve St Bede’s finances and allow it to work collaboratively with other schools, while promising the governing body will still have a say on how it is run.
Among the trust’s academies is Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Primary School, where a High Court review against the diocese was dropped last August, and St Aidan’s Catholic Primary Academy, given the lowest ‘inadequate’ rating by Ofsted after converting and ‘requires improvement’ in its last inspection.
At a meeting last Friday, staff member, parent and former pupil Gemma Mackenzie said she had a “fabulous childhood” at St Bede’s and did not want to see “something detrimental” happen to the school.
“If it was a good thing, of course I would go along with it but the things that have been happening, I just do not agree with,” she said, “There’s just not enough incentive to go.
“Anything the kids want, they can go to the parents’ association, who will work hard and fundraise. The community do not need an academy to collaborate, they can do that now.
“When we talk to the governors, it feels like a done deal. They say this consultation is only exploratory but then why is there a sign on the front door saying we will become an academy this year? That does not seem fair or exploratory to me.”
She claimed the decision is being “rushed through” and that she would welcome the five-year wait suggested by other campaigners to see how schools in the academy fare.
Ilford South MP Sam Tarry told assembled staff and parents that, once a school converted, “it’s like that door has been slammed shut on you”, adding there were “too many horror stories” of “too much money being spent on people at the very top” in academies.
Cllr Elaine Norman, cabinet member for children and young people, added: “We have had experience in Redbridge of multi-academy trusts really asset-stripping our schools, something that I for one think is quite unacceptable.
“We do not accept that there are any projected benefits for pupils, parents or staff that are not available to the governing body.”
She said the council “would wish all Redbridge schools to remain linked with the local authority”, a statement supported by council leader Cllr Jas Athwal, who said the council would “stand by” those opposing the change.
However, Father Andrew Headon, a trustee of the Good Shepherd Trust, told the Local Democracy Service the benefits of converting “were multiple, first and foremost for the pupils”.
He said: “They benefit the most through their staff working more collaboratively and sharing good practice.
“We have very strong governance within our Catholic schools and that will not change, if anything it will get better.
“The service Redbridge is giving at the minute for HR and payroll is absolutely dreadful. In a multi-academy trust, those services can be centralised, so you get savings and more money to spend on the children.
“Everyone is afraid of change. They are all afraid St Bede’s will become part of a financial institution but that is not the case.”
He said control of the school would remain “local”, with the governing body making recommendations to the trustees, which they would be “unwise not to listen to”.
Asked about the suggestion of a five-year delay on plans to convert, he said: “If you were given a present tomorrow, would you wait five years to unwrap it?”
In response to strike action planned for Thursday (February 27), head teacher Gary Nott explained in a letter that the school would be closed to pupils that day.
He wrote: “Please be assured that the governors are in communication with the NEU, through the diocese, and have requested that strike action be called off in view of the commitments that have been made to protect staff’s terms and conditions of employment and to enable consultation to go ahead.”
Consultation will begin on March 2 and end on March 27 before the governing body makes a decision in April.