Staff and parents protest academy plans outside County Hall

On Tuesday 25th May members of the National Education Union at Peacehaven Heights Primary School took a second day of strike action over the threat of the school being taken over by an academy. Following a short picket line outside the school, they were accompanied by parents and community members outside County Hall in Lewes to protest on the day of the first in-person full council meeting since Covid restrictions were implemented last year.

A union official, staff member and parent met with Councillor Bob Standley who is the Lead Member for Education, and Stuart Gallimore, the Director of Children’s Services at East Sussex County Council.

Craig Arden, National Education Union Regional Officer, said:

“Unfortunately, we were not given any assurances today that East Sussex County Council intend to re-instate local governing bodies to decide the future of the schools in Peacehaven at this time.

“They argue that the Interim Executive Board (IEB) and interim leadership have brought stability to the school but refuse to accept that re-instating a local governing body could build on this stability, whilst also deciding whether to put in transitional arrangements to permanent leadership, or to continue with the IEB’s plan to consult on academy conversion.

“On one hand they say that East Sussex County Council has less resources to support the local authority schools properly, yet on the other hand they accept that local authority schools contribute less of their school budgets to central services than they would in an academy trust.

“East Sussex County Council has more than 100 local authority schools, whereas the academy trust that the IEB is lining up to potentially take over in the future only has 18. The financial argument does not hold sway when academies and local authority schools receive the same per pupil funding.

“Peacehaven recently elected 2 new councillors who stood on a pledge of fighting to keep the schools in Peacehaven as community schools, and the NEU will continue to campaign with parents to ensure they retain local democratic accountability over their schools”.

Kerry Gilbert, who has 2 children at Peacehaven Heights, said:

“I attended the protest outside County Hall today to show my support to staff on strike because I feel incredibly let down by the IEB and the decisions they have made for our school.

“They filled in the swimming pool without any discussion with parents, leaving many children now with no access to swimming lessons. They have stopped Beach School which was an incredibly important nurture provision at the school for all the children, particularly those with special educational needs like my son.

“It has been apparent from the start that behaviour and attendance statistics are much more important to the IEB than pupils’ mental health and well-being.

“I want a local governing body to be put back in place as soon as possible so the community can decide what happens to our school, rather than decisions being forced on us by an IEB, whose chairperson has never even visited the school.”

Councillor Chris Collier, newly elected County Councillor for Peacehaven, said:

“I’m disappointed that staff have been driven to a second day of strike action. I am calling on East Sussex County Council to put a local governing body back in place. Any consultation can then be carried out by them in a transparent way that puts the best interests of the pupils first, rather than this headlong nose-dive into forced academisation.”

Background

In 2019, East Sussex County Council instructed the local governing bodies at Peacehaven Heights Primary School and Telscombe Cliffs Primary School to explore academy conversion to raise standards. After strike action at both schools and by concluding through their own research that academisation would not lead to school improvement, they decided against consulting over conversion.

Interim Executive Boards were then imposed on the schools by East Sussex County Council in September 2019 with an expectation from the Department for Education to “actively consider a sponsored academy solution” for the schools. STEP Academy Trust were then approached by the local authority to provide interim leadership and services to the schools.

Consultation over whether to convert to academy status was due to begin earlier this year. However, parents argued that it should be postponed until they can meet in person during consultation, and this has been pushed back until the autumn term.

Staff at Peacehaven Heights Primary School took strike action on 5th May 2021, the day before the local elections. 2 new Labour councillors were elected in the town who had pledged to campaign for the schools to remain locally run. On the day, large numbers of parents and children turned out at picket lines and marched to The Big Park for speeches, including from Lloyd-Russell Moyle MP.

Parents were angered by the decision of the IEBs just a few weeks later to apply to the Regional Schools Commissioner for academy orders, months in advance on consultation taking place. They argue that this seriously undermines the meaningfulness of any future consultation when the law does not require academy orders to be applied for in advance of consultation.

Due to this decision, members of the National Education Union decided to take a further day of industrial action on 25th May to voice their opposition and attend County Hall to ensure that the council would take notice of their concerns.