NEU union members at the LDE free school in east London struck for a sixth day on Thursday. And they have voted for more strikes because they see the walkouts as their only chance to make the school better for staff and students.
Strikers are demanding the reinstatement of sacked NEU rep Sharon Morgan and better contracts, with more than a one-week dismissal period.
On the fourth day of their strikes on Tuesday, CEO Jeremy Galpin appeared on the picket line. Strikers perked up. “He’s never around,” said one. “I’ve only seen him once.”
Another striker was less optimistic. “He’s been part of the process,” they said. “He has sent communications internally which contradicts what we have tried to do. They’ve created a lack of trust because they haven’t listened to any of our demands.”
Several strikers told Socialist Worker that, when they first came to the school, things were very different. They described having specialised, first class equipment for design and engineering.
“I came to work here because there was a vision that was really in the interests of students,” said one. “It was giving them opportunities they wouldn’t get anywhere else in the borough.
“We worked together as a really strong team. The vision included a broad curriculum, employing high quality staff. There was a 50-minute lunch break. There was a no homework policy. Everything could be done in the 8.30am-5pm school day.”
This all changed after the Ofsted schools inspectorate gave the school a “requires improvement” report. Teachers said management brought in more hours of contact time and cut the lunch break to ten minutes.
Homework was expected for every class – and teachers were called in if it wasn’t given and marked. Everything started to be monitored. Teachers found they could go the whole week without speaking to another colleague.
All these changes were made without any consultation.
Then earlier this year, management brought in new, heavier timetables. “That’s when I joined the union,” said one striker. Others joined too. The union group began to meet and elected Sharon as their rep. They tried to discuss their issues with management.
But management began to attack Sharon, then dismissed her.
One member said, “We wanted to work together. We want a culture where you can communicate. We recognise not all our ideas and needs will be taken on, but just to be heard, to be part of the process.”
Conditions got worse during the pandemic. Teachers were told to open windows. But triple-glazing was installed because the school looks out onto City Airport. In an already overcrowded classroom with design technology equipment, not hearing instructions is a safety issue.
No discussion of this and other Covid-related issues was tolerated. In the union’s survey on wellbeing, 100 percent said they had symptoms of work-related stress.
NEU regional organiser Michael Gavan said bullying and intimidation made it hard to organise. The majority of NEU members voted to strike but not all of them are out.
One picketer said, “There are people who feel very vulnerable, they want to support us. We have to be their voice.” Another said many new teachers at the school “don’t know it can be different”.
But the strike can also give people confidence. “I was anxious but we’ve had a couple of meetings where we all came together to reaffirm why this strike is necessary,” one teacher explained.
“The conditions we’ve been working under are not conducive to a positive working atmosphere for teachers and students. Things are stressful enough with the pandemic – we don’t need extra pressure. This was necessary.”
The school has made some changes since the action began. The contract has been slightly amended in workers’ favour and working parties have been set up. But picketers agreed this latter measure was a front to make them work more hours and then the management would control what happened.
The strike has achieved one concrete improvement – teachers have received letters confirming they have passed their probation. Some have waited four years for this!
After initially agreeing to talks at the Acas conciliation service, the CEO has since withdrawn from this. Michael Gavan told pickets on Thursday, “The union will stand by the outcome of the Employment Tribunal hearing and asked them to do the same.”
A meeting to explain and get support from parents is planned for Monday. Local MP Stephen Timms has contacted LDE management in support of the strike.
And the NEU has agreed a further six strike days next term, starting on 13 and 14 January.
Sharon thanked strikers for their “support and bravery” on Thursday’s picket line. She said, “We can get them to listen to us to get a better school for all staff and students.”