A primary school whose top management were paid £1.49m last year has become among the first to use strike-busting legislation allowing them to hire agency workers to replace striking staff.
Temps have been brought in to break a strike by 10 support staff at Drapers’ Pyrgo primary in Romford, east London , who are protesting against cuts to their wages and working hours.
It is believed to be the first use in schools of a new law enacted in the final days of Boris Johnson’s administration that allows agency workers to be brought in to replace striking workers
The Trades Union Congress, Labour and rebel Conservative MPs had warned that the legislation, approved in July, would undermine workers’ rights. A Labour MP had described it as being akin to a “scabs charter” while the TUC accused Johnson of taking a step that “even Margaret Thatcher did not go near”.
Drapers’ Pyrgo is one of five academies within the Drapers multi-academy trust where the total benefits’ packet for its trustees and 12 members of senior management was £1,488,140 in 2020-2021, up from £1,213,373 the previous year.
One agency, Pertemps, had agreed to provide supply staff to the school but claimed it subsequently refused on being informed of the reason by the National Education Union (NEU).
The company’s managing director, Andrew Anastasiou, suggested in a letter to the NEU on 21 September that it had been misled, a claim that has been strenuously denied by Drapers multi-academy trust.
“We were completely unaware of the strike action,” Anastasiou wrote. “Drapers’ Prygo is not a client school of ours. They called us for the first time a couple of weeks ago for help in finding 3 TAs [teaching assistants] for two days, which we were informed was for sickness cover. We had availability and was happy to help a ‘new’ school.
“However, now we fully understand the situation, we will refrain from supplying any staff until the dispute has been resolved. We have no intention involving ourselves or undermining any parties and fully appreciate the ethical responsibility. We wholeheartedly do not knowingly supply workers to cover for industrial action.”
A second agency, Simply Education, did agree to provide staff but, in response to this newspaper’s questions, the company apologised and said it would no longer do so.
A spokesman said: “We have reviewed our company policy and as a result will no longer be supplying teaching or support staff to cover strike action. Rest assured, our focus is always on providing the best support we can to our teaching staff, the education sector and to the schools we work with. We understand what a difficult and emotional subject this is and offer our sincere apologies for any upset caused.”
The 10 support staff on strike, comprising teaching assistants and learning mentors, have been withdrawing their labour on and off since 17 May.
The industrial dispute centres on the downgrading of the salary grades of five support staff and a cut of 2.5 hours to the wages of a further five. A teaching assistant on a salary of £15,000 faced losing £100 a month, the NEU said.
Patricia Akel, 62, a teaching assistant, who has worked at the school for more than 17 years, said she would lose £95 a month but that others faced a cut of £300. “It is just an injustice. I asked the temps whether they were teaching assistants but they are teachers,” she said. “I mean, the amount we are asking for as compared to what this is costing the school is ridiculous. They are just digging their heels in and it is spiteful.”
A compromise appeared to have been found under which the wages of the downgraded group would be protected for two years while those facing a cut in their hours would receive a one-off payment of £1,000 each in compensation. The NEU insisted that the tax on the payment should be covered by the trust, which has since claimed that the tentative deal is unaffordable.
In a letter sent to parents on 31 August, Louise Fisk, the school’s principal, wrote that the school would exploit the new legislation to cover the gaps.
She said: “A change in legislation in July means that schools can now use agency/temporary workers to cover the work of striking employees. This change in legislation allows the school to manage the impact of the strike days more effectively and, more importantly, we can fully continue with the educational service.”
The teaching assistants are planning to strike for three days a week until the half-term. A ballot is to be held over continuing the action.
Bushra Nasir, Drapers’ multi =-academy trust’s chief executive, said a “generous offer” had been rejected by staff over the summer and that the strike risked damaging students’ education.
She said: “The recruitment agencies were made fully aware their staff would be used as cover for the strikes. The temporary staff are all covering teaching assistant roles and are paid at the corresponding rate.”
She added: “In putting our students first, we reluctantly took the decision to hire some agency staff to cover some roles during the strike, in line with government legislation.
“This was to ensure that all pupils could attend school during any further disruption. It was not politically motivated or done to undermine the strike but purely in the best interest of our children and their families.”