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Academy chain hits back in row over union recognition

By David Spereall, local democracy reporter

An academy chain – which has two schools in Farnley – has claimed it’s being “targeted” by “small-minded political sniping”, after councillors were told it did not engage with teaching unions.

The GORSE Academies Trust (TGAT) insisted it “enjoyed positive” industrial relations, although it confirmed it doesn’t allow union reps to carry out duties in working hours, as is common in workplaces with a recognised union.

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The trust runs four primary schools and six secondary schools across Leeds, including Farnley Academy and Ryecroft Academy, making it one of the biggest chains in the city.

The trust’s boss hit back on Thursday after Leeds City Council’s deputy leader publicly urged the trust to formally recognise unions, which would allow staff to collectively bargain over conditions and working practices.

A scrutiny meeting on Wednesday was also told that teachers at TGAT were “working through their lunch breaks” and that the trust was failing to honour rules around time teachers are allowed to spend away from the classroom.

ryecroft academy farnley
Ryecroft Academy in Farnley.

TGAT chief executive Sir John Townsley later said those comments were “inaccurate” and that the trust was “surprised” by the “negativity” of the remarks.

At a children and young people scrutiny board, councillors heard a nationwide teacher shortage was driving up workloads for staff in schools.

Although pay is set nationally by the Department of Education (DoE), unions want to have a local presence in schools so they can negotiate over conditions and issues under the control of an academy or head teacher.

Helen Bellamy, from the National Education Union (NEU), said: “As unions, the way we impact those situations is by having union recognition agreements with multi-academy trusts (MATS) and we have that with the city council and many MATS.”

But she said there was no means of negotiating with TGAT, which she claimed was struggling with very high staff turnover.

She said: “We’re trying very, very hard to build a relationship with TGAT.

“We know that’d be beneficial for schools in the trust and it would reduce turnover. We can get in early and raise issues that maybe the leadership aren’t aware of.”

In response, the council’s deputy leader, Councillor Jonathan Pryor, who is also the authority’s executive member for education, said: “Some academies will recognise unions and work fine with them. Others – and you’ve referenced the GORSE Academies Trust – I’d like them to recognise unions full stop.

“It stops problems becoming bigger. It ensures those staff have a decent place to work and I want to see all our schools engaging with the unions.”

The discussion took place against the backdrop of a strike by sixth form teachers on Wednesday.

NEU members could be seen on a picket line across the street from the window of the Civic Hall room where the meeting was taking place.

Julie Heselwood bramley
Cllr Jools Heselwood

Labour Bramley & Stanningley councillor Julie Heselwood, who also works for the NEU, told the committee that TGAT was “not honouring PPA”, which is planning, preparation and assessment time teachers are normally given to work outside the classroom.

She added: “They’re making staff work through their lunch, working from the moment the school starts, to finishing time and beyond.

“These are reasons we’re losing teachers from the profession, because these academy trusts are allowed to set their own terms and conditions.”

In a statement on Thursday, TGAT chief executive officer Sir John Townsley said: “As a trust, we are surprised at the negativity of the comments that have been made about us (at the meeting) and the fact that those comments are inaccurate.

“It is correct to say that we do not choose to have a facilities time agreement in place with professional associations, though we do enjoy positive relationships with them.

“We have been happy, for example, to facilitate trade union meetings in our academies for members and their representatives.”

Sir John added: “Comments made about us regarding not honouring PPA time and working through lunch breaks are inaccurate.

“We comply fully with contractual requirements set out for all teachers which are in line with those operating within local authority schools.

“It is also untrue to say that professionals are required to begin working when they enter the building and are not allowed to finish until they leave.”

“GORSE staff continue to work really hard to make a positive difference for children right across our city including those from the very poorest backgrounds.

“We are surprised that, given the quality of our contribution, we remain the target of small-minded political sniping.”

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