Tech City Strike

Teachers at Tech City, a 16-19 free school formerly known as STEM 6, have voted unanimously to strike for five before the Xmas holidays in support of their demand for humane and workable performance management and a fair pay policy. (Tuesday 8th, Wednesday 9th, Tuesday 15th, Wednesday 16th and Thursday 17th December)

Earlier this month, following quite excessive pressure on staff from senior managers to “improve” their performance – which included one teacher being phoned late on a Sunday night with instructions on what to do during a lessons observation the next day – one teacher was so stressed and anxious that she collapsed in front of the students she was teaching.

The aim of the strike is that Aspirations the academy chain which took over STEM 6 and renamed it at the beginning of September should agree:

·         to a performance management policy - like the one adopted in large majority of  Islington schools – with limits on the number of times a teacher can be observed for performance management purposes each year and reasonable notice of the lesson in which a teacher is going to be observed. We believe that performance management should be a shared and supportive process which helps teachers address weaknesses in their teaching and demonstrate strengths rather than the reign of terror that Aspirations has imposed at Tech City.

·         to a pay policy which allows teachers to progress up the appropriate pay scale unless they have previously been given reasonable notice that there is scope for improvement as well as adequate time and support to achieve it. As the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, wrote to head teachers last year: ‘There should be no surprises’. At Tech City, in November, staff had some big surprises. More than a third of them were refused incremental pay progression mainly on the grounds that the exam results achieved by the students they taught last year weren’t good enough – even though they been given no warning last year that this could be the outcome of supposed deficiencies in their teaching; even though they had been given no support in addressing and overcoming these deficiencies; even though it is impossible to reduce the cause of a groups of students’ exam results to the teaching of an individual teacher; even though a better explanation of the relatively disappointing overall results achieved by STEM 6 teachers last summer had a whole lot more to do with the chaos and totally  incompetent management which reigned at STEM 6 from the time it was established back in September 2013. So incompetent was that management and so disorganised was staff performance management that, at the end of the last school year, the NUT had to provide the principals in post at the time with a suitable performance management assessment pro forma, similar to one used at a local sixth form college, because it had not devised one for itself – even at this late stage!

 

Perhaps, in an attempt to justify this appalling state of affairs – which has seen TECH City denuded of students as some of them vote with their feet and leave and others fail to enrol in the first place as a result of the abject failure of Aspirations to promote the academy properly or put on an attractive open evening for prospective students and their parents – Tech City last week released to the press a report of a recent ‘monitoring visit’ by Ofsted’s Stewart Jackson who conveniently blamed the ‘slow progress’ made by STEM 6 since it was given an ‘inadequate’ rating almost entirely on the teachers – to the extent that it even slandered seven teachers (half the current teaching staff) who have handed in their notice in recent weeks because they could take no more of the chaos and intimidation which was going on by alleging that ‘the large majority of teachers whose practise is poor are leaving the college’.

Identifying bad teachers – and praising the managers – doesn’t sit well with the findings of an earlier Ofsted inspection which reported in January this year. Among a summary of its findings are the following:

  • performance management is inadequate; mangers’ evaluation of the impact of teaching on learners’ progress is not accurate and, as a result, too much teaching, learning and assessment require improvement or are inadequate
  • governors have not ensured that senior managers have sufficient time or support to ensure that learners receive good teaching, learning and assessment and make good progress

Teachers at STEM Academy do not deny that students have been short-changed. What they do assert, however, is that they have had to teach in chaotic circumstances, unsupported and even undermined by their managers’ and governors’ incompetence.

These are only some of the many complaints the NUT has received from its members at Tech City:

  • ‘The Leadership has been confusing and chaotic from the start. Plans for the session change right up to the last minute and often during the session itself. The response of the Trust about the Leadership course is that it is “non-negotiable”, despite the fact that no-one has put in place a coherent plan and direction for the course and despite the overwhelmingly negative response to it from both students and teachers.’
  • ‘There is no organisation to Leadership. Instructions have been emailed on the leadership day at 10.41 (sessions start at 10.40) and this is unacceptable for planning. There is student unrest due to the evident lack of academic planning. The register process is flawed. Parents are being contacted to attend “crisis meetings” based on attendance data which is not accurate. Attendance is the biggest issue and blame has been pushed on to teachers by management.”
  • ‘I have been denied pay progression despite never having been given performance targets to meet.’
  • ‘I was denied pay progression despite not being given targets for the year.’
  • ‘Since September there have been parents evening, internal observations, Ofsted, two open evenings. There are now workshops running until 5.10pm. There is also a third open evening scheduled for two weeks’ time. The fact that we have had two parents’ evenings and a net attendance of approximately 10 parents due to poor communications has to be highlighted. This is a complete waste of time and staff effort.’
  • ‘I found it totally unacceptable that students were told in assembly and informed in the autumn newsletter that the teaching and learning was not to the right standard and that from January onwards it would be addressed with “better teachers”.’

 

Islington teachers have previous experience of Ofsted voicing the prejudices of its Chief Inspectors or the policy interests of governments, as when, ten years ago, one Islington teacher used the Freedom of Information Act ten years to prove that the then Chief Inspector of School, Chris Woodhead, had over-ridden Her Majesty’s Inspectors to fail Islington Green School without even visiting it, eventually forcing the school to become an academy against the overwhelming opposition of its teachers and many of its parents.

Back in September this year, local MP, Emily Thornberry, wrote to the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, expressing concerns about developments at what was then STEM 6 calling for ‘urgent action’ to rescue this academy’.

Not entirely, satisfied by the response she received from Lord Nash (on behalf of Nicky Morgan) she wrote back to him expressing further concern about ‘considerable difficulties’ at Tech City, including the resignation of seven teachers (half the teaching staff) this term and the ‘little progress towards improving working arrangements and performance management’.

Perhaps at least as worrying to the general public, was another issue she raised in her letter: the apparent misuse of public funds:

I remain concerned [she wrote] that STEM [Academy Education Trust] has been permitted to start a school at huge public expense which is failing to deliver an acceptable service to inner-city pupils. A further concern is STEM’s former plans to expand their work into South London. – I understand that Norwood Police Station was purchased by DCLG in 2014, with the expectation that STEM would open a second Academy there in September 2015

However, after gaining the DfE approval, and recruiting some members of staff and some pupils, STEM decided to abandon this project, and the building remains empty. This does cause me considerable concern – a public asset which could have provided much-needed affordable housing or other facilities of use to the local community remains empty two years after the mayor closed the police station.

I would appreciate your further comments on the DfE’s relationship with the STEM Academy Education Trust –what assessment of the Trust’s plans were carried out before they were permitted to set up an academy in my constituency. Why was the Trust allocated another public building when it had no track record of delivering good quality education? Will the Trust be held liable for any costs in relation to the South Norwood building?

This matter has also taken up by London Assembly Member, Fiona Twycross, who wrote to DCLG Secretary of State, Greg Clark, about the abandoned Norwood academy project on 20 November:

It seems to me that there should have been more adequate checks to ensure the school site was viable. Did STEM then incur any costs following their last minute decision to walk away from opening a school here?

I am concerned that this valuable public asset has now not been used since 2012. It seems to be a very poor use of public money to keep this site unused. Can you also outline the cost of keeping this site secure, and the total cost to date?

Islington NUT Joint Secretary, Ken Muller, commented:

These important questions bring in to relief the chaos which has reigned around STEM 6 / Tech City from the start, chaos which has damaged the educational opportunities of the students who have enrolled there and the students whose working lives and careers have been blighted by the incompetence who are meant to be providing them with support and direction.

Teachers City teachers are being scapegoated, bullied and penalised for the failings of others.

That is why they are reluctantly going on strike – and that is why they deserve the support of colleagues in other schools, their students and their parents and the rest of the local community.

 

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