An inspiring battle in east London has breathed new life into the fight to stop academies. Two socialist activists, Carolyn McGrath and Miriam Scharf, spoke to Socialist Worker about how the campaign was built – and how others can take up the struggle elsewhere
UPDATE: This week teachers and parents at Avenue school in Newham won a victory in pushing back plans to turn their school into an academy. Meanwhile at Cumberland school, also in Newham, plans to turn the school into an academy went ahead. But the battle to stop academisation and defend education in all schools is far from over.
Carolyn McGrath, NEU union rep, Cumberland school, Newham:
I’ve been the union rep at Cumberland school in Newham for the last three or four years. It’s a large union group but it had been quite passive.
For instance, some years ago when I first came to the school there was a national strike and protest in London. At the union meeting the night before, I assumed that’s what people would be talking about. But people were talking about car park issues.
The school has been said to be “coasting” for the last few years. We were under pressure to improve and to look for intervention. And those interventions were always put into the framework of academisation. There was no alternative offered.
The union group lacked confidence. A third of the staff had left and new staff didn’t feel able to stand up. So when academisation was put on the table, people accepted it as a fait accompli.
We didn’t feel we had a leg to stand on. If you’re told you’re underachieving, your self-esteem drops as an individual and as an institution.
But as time went on, we felt that we should stand up for the rights of parents to have a say. And just because we’re “coasting”, we shouldn’t be pushed into a system that is not good for pupils.
Why should we accept being pushed into something that isn’t a solution? If schools in leafy boroughs can say we don’t want academisation, why can’t we?
Before the summer holiday the CEO of the trust that would run the academy came to speak to us. We’d been told that we shared the same ethos, values and philosophy, but it was clear that he didn’t.
People questioned his attitude towards inclusion and other things. People were cynical about his insistence that things wouldn’t change, because we felt something needed to change. That was the whole point – supposedly.
Over the holidays he started changing his human resources policies at the other school he runs, Forest Gate. It’s the only school in an empty Multi Academy Trust. So people could see that the claim that nothing would change was hollow.
We were concerned about our conditions, the threat to inclusion and the impact of PFI. We believed that the coasting label was being used to bully the management of the school.
We went to the governing body in September during the consultation period, but we were ignored.
Because of our initial lacklustre response, we hadn’t offered an alternative. Ideally we would have jumped straight into a campaign, but that doesn’t happen when you’ve been eroded in the way that we had been.
So the union group slowly built up confidence and 32 of us voted to call for an indicative ballot.
I kept the doors open for other staff to come to our meetings. So when we said we were having an indicative ballot, Unison and GMB union members wanted to get involved.
Many of them joined the NEU to support the action and have been the backbone in many ways. Suddenly we grew from 32 to 98. And we’re now about 120. That made a big difference. We had a lot of meetings and we got very strong votes for strikes.
This isn’t like national strikes or demonstrations, when you know you aren’t going to get into trouble. It really requires people to put themselves on the line. It’s not easy.
The key change in Newham this year has been getting different people elected as union officers and reps.
I’ve been a member of the Socialist Workers Party since the early 1990s. It makes a difference because when something happens, you know where you have to stand and what you need to do. People have thanked me.
But when I called the first meetings, nothing happened. After the summer, when terms and conditions were being attacked, there was something concrete. So the number of people in the room was different, the conversations were different.
Staff at Cumberland are very committed and they care deeply about each other and the pupils. So when you put arguments about the community and the pupils, you’re talking to people who share those values.
Sometimes you don’t know how people feel. The first strike day I didn’t know who would turn up and every day it’s like that. But we’ve had between 30 and 50 people on the picket lines throughout.
All the way through, people have got stronger and more solid. People have found their voice.
Having socialists in schools matters
Miriam Scharf, Newham NEU officer and campaigner with Newham Against Academisation:
The drive towards academies in Newham has been driven by education cuts. Our council started to abandon all services some time ago. And land values in Newham have been skyrocketing.
Anyone with an eye on the property market would only have to look at the land and see that it’s playgrounds, playing fields and schools. Academisation is a way of getting hold of that.
The council has been completely happy for schools to become academies. More of our schools started to be taken out of democratic control.
On the union side, we were letting it happen. Over the last 20 years our union in Newham has been far too weak. It has been dominated by right wingers who were happy keeping in with the employers, whether they were the local authority or academy trusts.
Two years ago we got a few more active people in schools and left wing people elected. And now we have a majority. We got more votes because of anti-academisation campaigns that had already taken place.
Having socialists in schools matters because we knew that strikes were the only way to stop academisation and we knew the potential. But we couldn’t prove that until the union committee changed. So over time we were building up a number of people who wanted things to be different in Newham.
In September I went to a union committee meeting and said I wanted to call a meeting against academisation. I was told by some officers that there was no point. But there were enough of us on the committee to vote for it.
For that meeting I asked Stefan Simms, an NUT divisional secretary from Ealing, to come because he’d already got strikes over academies going. He spoke and said you need two things – the union to strike and parents to support it.
I had ordered tea and coffee for 20 and we had 50 in the room.
Some parents had been involved in a failed campaign against academies in July. They helped leaflet parents at schools, along with Labour Party members and socialists.
But we had no idea we were going to get such a good response.
After this meeting, I rang two key parents and we organised a meeting for the following week near their school so parents could get there.
We called it as Newham Against Academisation and the NEU, and we got 50 there just three local primary schools that were under threat. So we knew we were onto something.
The parent campaign last term was fantastic. It drew in other people. It lost at those three schools, but those parents remain totally engaged. So we have five key parents who have been to meetings at Cumberland, because their kids will be going there.
They have inspired union members by saying, ‘These are our kids and we want you to defend them’. They’ve helped leaflet other schools with us. And they speak different languages, so can reach more people.
The struggle at Avenue, led by the union rep and now Newham Teachers Association secretary, has been a major inspiration to everyone. The parents there have not only supported picket lines, organised petitions and attended meetings. They have also gone to the High Court to challenge the consultation process, successfully so far.
Another key thing is that the union nationally has recruited organisers. They went into schools that we identified as under threat and they recruited groups of union reps. They encouraged people to call union meetings and union groups to discuss academies.
Keir Hardie was won by parents working on the governors and the union group being prepared to strike. At the time they caved in a three-day strike was imminent. And they could see three-day strikes at Cumberland and Avenue.
Being rooted in your area helps too. For instance, in one school, someone told the head teacher about me and she asked me in to debate academies with a CEO.
We also had a retired head teacher on board who is very left and in the Labour Party. She and other campaigners, along with some anti-academy heads, are working on an alternative network of support for schools using Redbridge Education Partnership as a model.
The context to all this is the hope that people have in change. Our council is changing because the Labour Party is changing with Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership.
We’re all hoping our council changes. But our message as socialists is, without people fighting from the bottom for our services, they won’t deliver it.