Education unions representing staff at Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) – the largest academy chain in the UK – are today (Wednesday) launching a ballot asking if employees have confidence in the trust’s leadership. 

The move comes after AET failed to listen to staff concerns over proposed cutbacks and restructuring. The changes will put the wellbeing of children and workers at serious risk, say the unions.

Last ditch talks between seven unions and AET to address concerns over a raft of cuts to services are currently taking place at conciliation service ACAS. These include the outsourcing of services, holding down of teacher pay progression, failure to tackle workloads, and further cuts to frontline school support staff.

However, unions say AET is attempting to sabotage the talks after the trust broke an agreement to pause changes while a resolution was sought.

The government has also been challenged by MPs at the Education Select Committee to publish details of the financial turnaround plan agreed between the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the trust. MP for Manchester Central Lucy Powell tabled a written question on 6 February 2019 to the Minister for Education and asked a number of questions at the Education Select Committee on Tuesday 30 April 2019.

Unions say the secretive nature of the deal calls into question what conditions AET has signed up to in return for millions of pounds of additional public funding.

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.”

Deputy director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders Sara Ford said:

“We remain concerned that AET’s plans to outsource school services and significantly cut school support staff will leave schools without the level of support they need to be able to focus on what matters most – their pupils.

“Whilst we are fully aware of the financial pressures caused by the inadequacy of government funding, that does not excuse AET’s determination to rush these changes through without due regard for the consultation and conciliation processes, as this will only lead to an ill-conceived implementation which will not be in the best interests of the pupils, staff or trust.”

mary boustedJoint general secretary of the National Education Union Dr Mary Bousted said:

“We want AET to engage in meaningful talks at ACAS and respect the ‘status quo’ provision in our recognition agreement. Instead it confirmed the outsourcing of its ICT staff on Easter Sunday for the next working day. 

“Teachers’ pay progression is one of the lowest in the sector and staff workload is a severe problem. Meanwhile AET chief executive Julian Drinkall is one of the highest paid MAT chief execs. 

“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.”

GMB national officer Sharon Wilde 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."

NAHT head of representation and bargaining John Hakes said:

“AET’s approach to the outsourcing of IT and the almost cavalier approach to the review of other support services is deeply concerning. The lack of transparency in particular is very disappointing.

“School leaders believe the impact on their schools may be detrimental to the improvement of teaching and learning.”

The seven unions involved are:

  • UNISON
  • GMB
  • Unite
  • ASCL
  • NAHT
  • NASUWT, and
  • NEU

A recent union survey of AET staff found that 71% of school leaders had health and safety concerns. Issues included vomit being left for hours, blocked toilets, and heads and other senior leaders being forced to work on reception due to staffing cuts. AET runs 62 schools across all regions of the UK.

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