Confrontation at the “good” school. Richard Price and Hugh Sullivan report.

OFSTED have just released a report assessing Ark Helenswood Academy, the all girls secondary school in Hastings, as a ‘good school’. Effectiveness of leadership and management is pronounced ‘good’; so is the quality of teaching, learning and assessment. These ratings follow inspections undertaken at the beginning of this summer term. But teachers are due to return to strike action next week following the half term break. The dispute is over working practices and pay conditions. The two sides give radically different versions of what is going on.

The striking teachers are members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). They started the first of an intended series of strikes on 16 and 17 May. More are due from Wednesday next week.

Ark say that the school will remain open to students in years 11 and 13. “We are working to ensure that they are well prepared and well supported as they continue their examinations.”

The Union Case
In an interview for this newspaper, Nick Trier, Executive member of the Union said, “I represent the whole of Sussex and Surrey. Teachers are incredibly reluctant to go on strike. There have been no strikes in my four and a half years in whole of Sussex and Surrey. We are not trigger-happy militants. We have been very, very slow and reluctant to take this action. But, frankly, the behaviour of management during our discussions and continuous requests to discuss the workload has driven us to it; they listen and then they always say ‘no’. Ark was established by hedge fund managers whose whole approach to trade unions is that they don’t want anything to do with them, or as little as possible”.

Mr Trier explained that the nub of the dispute is teachers’ workload. “Most schools have teachers who are contracted to teach 25 hours of lessons a week. Teachers at Helenswood teach 27,” he says. “Ark ensure that more lessons are taught with existing staff by making them work harder. The alternative would have been to employ extra staff rather than load each existing teacher with two more lessons. Additionally, most schools have parent evenings and an hour of after-school meetings typically every two or three weeks. With Ark it is one and a half hours every week for 37 weeks of the year.

“The overloaded teachers are expected to read their emails, ring parents and meet with students in their own time. Each teacher has got just one hour a week to respond to emails and no time at all to meet students or talk to parents unless they are using what the school refers to as ‘the teacher’s own time’. A consequence of the policy is that teachers are also expected to travel between sites in their own breaks.”

There is one teacher who has told Mr Trier that she is now afraid to drink anything on one day a week because she is teaching all the time there is and has to be at a different site after lunch and before. “She is just spending all her time in lessons and travelling between sites. When you take into account the travel time and the traffic jams she literally doesn’t have the time to go to the toilet. She knows that if she drinks then she is going to have to go to
the toilet, so she doesn’t.”

Mr Trier maintains that in the last financial year Helenswood had a surplus of £185,000 which could have been spent increasing teacher pay or employing more staff, but despite the fact that the pay award body awarded two per cent for those at the bottom of the pay scale, it has been withheld.

Ark rebuttals
Ark do not accept that staff workloads are excessive. Their spokesman has told us that there are no teachers at the school currently teaching 27 hours of lessons a week, on the contrary the vast majority have 23 hours or less. “A small number of staff” are asked to regularly travel between Helenswood’s two sites, but efforts are being made to change their timetables to make sure they get “less directed time”.

The spokesman also denied that there was any “surplus” which would enable ARK to hire more teachers. Last year, he said, Helenswood had an in-year deficit of £97,000, leaving the school’s reserves at just £22,000. “Ark is a charity. We do not make a profit from education and we never will.  But the entire nation is facing an environment of real terms funding decreases, coupled with increasing costs. Ark Helenswood, and indeed all Ark schools, rely on government funding awarded on a per pupil basis, and this limits our ability to increase pay scales without running the risk of having to make commensurate budget cuts in order to make ends meet.”

It has been suggested that there is a very high turnover of staff at Ark schools, characterised by the recruitment and employment of young trainee teachers paid at the lowest scale and working under extreme time pressure who then leave for schools offering better pay and/or conditions as soon as they can. This was also denied. “As a network, Ark has only 130 trainee teachers out of a total of 1,547 – which is only 8.4%. Our trainees are supported by the Ark Training Programme, which has been rated outstanding in every category by OFSTED. We believe our schools, including Ark Helenswood, are rewarding and satisfying places to work”.

That’s a difficult proposition to test. When asked whether or not it would be possible to interview some teachers, Mr Trier told us: “If any staff member says anything that could be characterised by the management as bringing Ark into disrepute, it would be a disciplinary offence. They can’t be disciplined for taking strike action: that would be illegal. However almost any complaint about the way that the management operate could be argued as disrepute. That is why it has been incredibly difficult to get the teacher side across versus the management side.”

Behaviour management
Notwithstanding the OFSTED ratings of “good” management, “good” quality teaching, and “good” outcomes for pupils, they assessed “personal development, behaviour and welfare” at Helenswood as “requiring improvement”. Taking out the jargon, they were criticising the number of pupils who fail to attend school regularly, a high level of exclusions, and some evidence of disruption during lessons.  Staff have been directed to ensure that they use the school’s behaviour management policy consistently “so that standards of behaviour continue to improve and levels of exclusion reduce”.

Which has a certain irony as pupils watch at first hand the confrontation escalate between teaching staff and management.


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