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Industry focus: 'Phantom Ofsteds' at a London Academy

An interview with ‘Mike', a London education worker, about the phenomenon of ‘phantom Ofsted' inspections, casualisation and mass dismissals of agency workers.

In London there is a local authority which claims to be the richest in Europe. Despite this, one-third of children in the borough live below the poverty line. In contrast, half of school age children in the locality are privately educated. This means that students left in the state system are overwhelmingly from the local estates. A sizeable percentage of them come from recently settled immigrant families. It is against this backdrop that this particular council began a program which has seen nearly all of its comprehensive secondary schools converted into academies.

Mike worked at one of those academies. Sponsored by a wealthy executive and specialising in “international business and enterprise”, the school boasts of “a strong commitment to education and business in the area”. A link to the Youth Enterprise Program is displayed prominently on the school’s website—which also offers the building out for “corporate hire”.

Having recently completed university, Mike was hired as a graduate support teacher. “My first impression of the place was pretty good. The pay wasn’t great, only sixty pounds a day, but that’s pretty standard for agency work in a school. But the hours were reasonable and the job was rewarding.”

While Mike was critical of the academy model before beginning work there, the conditions were okay. He didn’t feel the school environment was especially warm, but staff got along with each other.
When asked how the permanent staff related to the agency workers, Mike responds, “Well, there was no resentment or anything”. But there was no discussion of the implication of the academy’s widespread use of agencies, either.

As far as Mike could tell there was no active union presence. “Although since I was only there a short time, I can’t really say. I was never asked to join the union and, if there was a rep, no one told me.”
On November 30th, the day of the mass pension strike that brought out just about every union in the education sector, Mike’s school was shut for students. “Management told the agency staff there’d be no point in us coming in” and, as far as he knows, none of them did. No permanent member of staff approached him to discuss the strike or ask him to participate. “If there was a picket line, I wasn’t told about it.”

The entirety of the student support—graduate teaching and learning support assistants—was comprised of about twenty staff, all from various agencies. Mike’s contract was only secure on a month-to-month basis and there was never any talk of moving to a directly employed post. Yet, when management announced that all support staff agency workers would be let go, it still came a shock.

At the time, the official line was “finance”. The school was in debt and couldn’t afford the luxury of so many support staff. So, after three months service and with only three weeks notice, agency staff were informed they’d be again entering the harsh world of the credit-crunch job market. Shortly after, the rumours started.

The first went like this: when Mike and his co-workers had been hired in November, the academy thought it’d be facing an Ofsted inspection that year. However, it was later discovered the school would be spared the pleasure of having the inspectors round. Management’s original plan to move from “satisfactory” to “good” by beefing up support staff no longer applied.

The second rumour involved the new EU agency worker directive that came into effect October of last year. The new rules state, in short, that after twelve weeks of continuous employment agency workers’ pay and conditions must be the same as if they were directly employed. Mike and his co-workers were let go after eleven weeks. Since then, there’s been talk of the same positions again becoming available, presumably on the same inferior contracts.

Citing his insecure contract Mike says his dismissal “didn’t come as a total surprise”, but that the entire experience has left him “bitter” and even more critical of academies.

“I was lucky, I found work quickly”, although it was another agency position, this time in a state school. “But for other people, especially those in the special needs department, they had more invested in the job. It’s what they wanted to be doing long-term.”

And how were the students affected by this mass exodus? Students who get learning support tend to develop a close bond with their support teachers. These are often those most vulnerable in the education system and trust does not often come easy.

“The students were the main reason I didn’t want to go”, says Mike. Even in three months they’d developed a strong attachment to him. Before he left, students made cards expressing their sadness that he’d be leaving. In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter why Mike and his co-workers were sacked.

The combination of factors—Ofsted (and the phenomenon of the “phantom Ofsted” familiar to any education worker), agency contracts, and work at an academy—left the support staff at Mike’s school in appallingly precarious employment. No clear explanation was ever given for the mass dismissal and that’s the entire point: management didn’t need to. And that’s exactly why employers use agency workers in the first place.

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