Teachers at Redbridge school to strike over management crisis

Teachers at a school in Redbridge are set to go on strike over rising sickness levels, management issues and “excessive” workloads.

A total of 38 teachers at the King Solomon High School, a Modern Orthodox Judaism school in Ilford, will walk out on Wednesday March 20 in an eight-day protest against the new leadership.

Michelle Phillips was appointed as headteacher in September 2023, following the departure of Hannele Reece, though her tenure has so far proven unpopular.

The National Education Union (NEU) has said that since she took on the top job, the school has lost almost all of its senior leadership team, staff sickness has risen to “exceptionally high” levels, and stress levels and “low morale” have exacerbated.

An NEU representative said the school’s leadership has been “inflexible” on the long-running issues, despite union attempts to resolve the dispute.

The headteacher “stuck to her guns” during a meeting on March 13, the union says. After the talks fell through, members voted overwhelmingly to escalate to strike action.

Venda Premkumar, Redbridge branch secretary for the NEU, said in a statement following the meeting: “It is sad to see a once happy school unravelling with high staff turnover and long-term illness due to stress.

“Staff have been pushed to the end of their tether through unmanageable increase in workload and having their job security threatened through the misuse of the capability procedure.

“At the end of the day, it is the students that suffer when a school is so dysfunctional.

“NEU members are trying to defend their colleagues and students’ education.’’

Ms Phillips, the school’s fourth headteacher since 2014, was quoted in Jewish News as saying both the school and its teaching “need to improve” for the sake of keeping a Jewish school in the borough.

She was said to be in “utter dismay” that staff would strike instead of supporting “an exciting new journey of success”.

The Forest Road school has regularly been told by Ofsted inspectors that it ‘requires improvement’ since 2003.

Though it was rated ‘good’ twice – in 2009 and 2016 – inspectors were less impressed during their 2021 inspection.

King Solomon High School was found to require improvement in every area, from the quality of education to the leadership and management.

Though pupils said they felt “safe and happy” at the school, criticism was levelled at the teachers’ planning of subjects, with some falling short of the national curriculum’s requirements.

Pushing ahead, Ms Phillips also criticised the “painful” timing of the strike, reportedly saying the union had chosen the “complete disruption” of pupils’ education over “reasonable methods of settling this dispute.

A spokesperson for Redbridge Council said the authority would be working with the school to “minimise disruption”.

They added: “The council has been supporting discussions, facilitated by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), between the school and the union.

“We encourage the union to engage with the school so they can address the issues raised and find a positive resolution for the King Solomon School community.”

The strike will not run for eight days consecutively and instead be broken up between Wednesday March 20 and Wednesday April 10.

The first two days will be March 20 and 21.

The following week, teachers will strike from March 26-28.

Next month, staff will strike on three days: April 4, 9 and 10.

NEU representatives will hold a Zoom call with parents of pupils on Wednesday to outline the situation.

As of March 14, 1,003 pupils were enrolled at the mixed-gender school.

It is a voluntary-aided school, with United Synagogue appointing the majority of governors and determining the ethos of the school and businessman Lord Alan Sugar serving as president.

It follows the national curriculum, with pupils in years nine to eleven sitting GCSE exams and sixth-form pupils studying for A-Levels.

In a statement provided to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Ms Phillips attacked the NEU for “ignoring the reality” of the borough’s education policy and for issuing “meaningless” statements.

She added: “This is utterly unacceptable and is an attempt to mask poor teaching and lack of professionalism of a few members of staff. It is the students that will pay the price with this woeful lack of care and compassion for teaching.”

She said the union “clearly wants strike action,” and called its timeline of events into question.

“The NEU has stated that staff only voted for strike action after the first talks with school leaders failed on February 27. This is untrue.

“On January 29, I received formal notice from the NEU that staff would be balloting for strike action and staff started voting from the 5th February 2024. This was nearly three weeks before the first negotiation meeting.”

She described the union as being “at the forefront of this strike chaos,” adding: “At least three other schools in Redbridge have experienced similar action from the NEU in the last four years. All of these schools had headteachers in their formative years of headship.”

Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter