The battle for control of Downhills Primary School in North London has escalated to a front-line conflict. After months of teachers unions threatening strike action over the controversial plans to convert the failing primary school into an academy and head teacher Leslie Church resigning in February, staff at the school plan to strike on the 22nd May.
Downhills is among 200 failing primary schools slated for conversion to academy standards in a Coalition drive to improve standards and outcomes in state education and the plans have been a constant source of friction between the unions and the government since their announcement. Teaching unions in the UK, already striking regularly over changes to their pension schemes, are bitterly opposed to the move that they consider to be designed to undermine teacher’s pay and working. They also accuse academies of being unaccountable, untested, and having unproven results.
If this argument sounds familiar to US readers, then that’s because it is. There are many parallels and similarities between the UK academy movement and the US charter school movement. The unions have already implicitly conceded that the schools are underperforming with the argument that charters and academies don’t produce any better results and merely result in the degradation of teacher’s pay, rights and working conditions. If the schools are acknowledged to be failing the children they are supposed to serve then education reform advocates would argue that change is necessary, and even unproven, untested change is likely to bring about positive benefits for the children involved. From the popular uptake of conversion to charter in the US and early encouraging signs in the UK education reformists are also likely to argue that their results speak for themselves.
National Union of Teachers’ General Secretary, Christine Blower restated the unflinching union position.
“Parents, teachers and governors have continually stated they have no wish to become an academy.
“Forcing academy status on schools has nothing whatsoever to do with standards but everything to do with the break up of our education system. Michael Gove [the Education Secretary] is simply playing fast and loose with taxpayers’ money and the future education of generations.”
The UK Department of Education is already on record as saying strikes don’t work, they just make it worse, and has shown no sign of backing down over the plans despite the union opposition. A spokesperson expressed disappointment:
“This will not achieve anything positive for the school, and will be hugely damaging to the children’s education,” she said.
“Downhills has been underperforming for several years. Most recently Ofsted found that it is failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education and that those responsible for leading, managing and governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement.”
The Downhill action is expected to be the first of many. The NUT has already balloted for strike action at more than a dozen primary schools slated for academy conversion in the Birmingham area alone.