Trust with schools across Suffolk and Essex faces vote of no confidence from staff
PUBLISHED: 13:04 01 May 2019 | UPDATED: 17:22 01 May 2019
Staff from academies across the region are voting on whether they have confidence in their trust's leadership - following concerns that proposed changes could put children and workers at "serious risk".
Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), the largest academy chain in the UK, is facing a vote of no confidence from employees after becoming embroiled in a dispute with education unions representing staff across Suffolk and Essex.
Leaders at UNISON, GMB, the National Education Union (NEU) and the Association of School and College Leaders have criticised AET for allegedly failing to listen to staff concerns over proposed cutbacks and restructuring, which they say “will put the wellbeing of children and workers at serious risk”.
The unions claim the trust is planning to outsource services, hold down teacher pay progression, and make further cuts to frontline school support staff.
However a spokeswoman for AET said “it is simply untrue to say that the changes we are making are putting children or staff at risk”.
AET runs a host of schools across Essex, including Clacton Coastal Academy, Maltings Academy, New Rickstones Academy and Tendring Technology College.
The trust is still technically in charge of Felixstowe Academy and Langer Primary Academy in Suffolk, but only while the schools prepare to transfer to a new sponsor.
Last ditch talks to address the concerns are currently taking place at conciliation service ACAS.
However the unions say AET is attempting to sabotage the talks after the trust allegedly broke an agreement to pause changes while a resolution was sought.
UNISON head of education, Jon Richards, said: “AET agreed that restructuring should be paused until ACAS talks were concluded. But AET chose Easter Sunday to break this agreement and announce it would immediately push ahead with outsourcing.
“AET is demonstrating a total lack of respect for staff. Its actions are a fundamental breach of trust. UNISON now has no choice but to move to a vote of no confidence and consider options for further action.”
AET claimed it had “at all points made every effort to engage with [the unions] in constructive dialogue” and believed “progress was being made”.
The trust's spokeswoman continued: “We met with union representatives immediately before the Easter weekend and offered to meet again immediately after. The first date they are available is 13 May. We look forward to those discussions and hope they will engage in a similarly constructive manner.”
One union representative accused AET of creating an environment “so stressful for staff it is literally making them ill”. Another argued “things can't go on as they are”.
The vote commenced today, with schools invited to have their say throughout the coming weeks.
'Nothing is going in the right direction'
In February, the government was challenged by MP Lucy Powell to publish details of a financial turnaround plan agreed between AET and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).
Nick Gibb, minister for Education, confirmed £16.1million of “recoverable and non-recoverable” deficit had been earmarked for the trust's turnaround plan, covering 2017-18 to 2020-21. He said the money is allocated “to protect the education of children [...] when trusts face financial difficulty”.
At that point, the government had provided £4.5million, of which £3.06million had been earmarked for restructuring costs, including redundancy payments.
Jerry Glazier, secretary for the Essex branch of the NEU, said the union wanted clarity on AET's financial situation and forward planning.
“Without being alarmist, we are concerned that we don't know completely what the future plans might be for the funding,” he said.
“There may be an increased impact on AET schools [...] at a time when schools are already struggling.
“Nothing is going in the right direction.”
He said financial problems could lead to “larger classes, increased workload for teachers and less incentive to work in schools”.
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Mr Glazier called for more transparency from AET, which would provide the unions with “a greater understanding of the strategy they are going to put in place to protect the schools”.
He added that it would be a “disaster” if any academies had to be re-floated down the line due to funding issues.
'Things can't go on as they are'
Sharon Wilde, GMB national officer, said: “AET is burying its head in the sand. They must acknowledge that these cuts will put staff and children's health and safety at risk.
“The trust is pursuing a policy of outsourcing and cuts to a dangerous level, whilst creating an environment that is so stressful for staff it is literally making them ill, and this is not conducive to a calm and happy working environment in which children can learn.
“AET must now listen to staff concerns, and work with us to find an acceptable way forward.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, added: “Things can't go on as they are. We're asking members to show what they think of AET through a vote of no confidence in the board and chief executive.”
Full response from Academies Enterprise Trust
A spokeswoman for AET said: “We are saddened that the unions have taken this stance as we have at all points made every effort to engage with them in constructive dialogue. We believe that progress was being made and have every hope that this will continue.
“We met with union representatives immediately before the Easter weekend and offered to meet again immediately after. The first date they are available is 13 May. We look forward to those discussions and hope they will engage in a similarly constructive manner.
“Everything we do is focused on ensuring that our schools are providing the best possible education, and it is simply untrue to say that the changes we are making are putting children or staff at risk.
“AET was previously a failing organisation – there were no financial controls, poor governance and scant education support. In short, this was an organisation in freefall that was badly letting down pupils and staff. The changes we have made have put AET onto a solid and sustainable footing.
“Financially, the trust broke even for the first time in five years last year, and results are improving year on year. We believe that every one of our schools should be providing an education that helps pupils go on to lead remarkable lives, and we will do everything in our power to make that vision a reality across our family.”
Which schools are run by AET?
• Felixstowe Academy, Suffolk (outgoing)
• Langer Primary Academy, Suffolk (outgoing)
• Ashingdon Primary Academy, Essex
• Hamford Primary Academy, Essex
• Hockley Primary Academy, Essex
• Plumberow Primary Academy, Essex
• Westerings Primary Academy, Essex
• Clacton Coastal Academy, Essex
• Greensward Academy, Essex
• Maltings Academy, Essex
• New Rickstones Academy, Essex
• Tendring Technology College, Essex