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The Co-op is rightly proud of being owned by its members, but it must put the needs of its own teachers and students back at the heart of its work.

The Co-op is a company which has historically prided itself on doing things differently from other big businesses. Its member owned philosophy is underpinned by the co-operative values of solidarity, equity, equality, and democracy, including concern for the community in its principles.

In 2010, the first Co-op Academy opened and, since then, the Co-op Academies Trust has rapidly expanded with plans to control 40 schools across the north of England by 2022. Sponsored by the Co-op Group, the Trust claims to be “different to every other multi-academy trust. Our values, shared by co-operatives across the globe, guide us in our decision making and define us in all that we do.”

However, this pledge is ringing increasingly hollow for some of our members employed by the Co-op Academies Trust, with serious concerns arising on the way that teaches are paid, as well as the imposition of detrimental changes to working hours and practices.

NASUWT members at Coop Swinton Academy have been taking discontinuous strike action since late September in a dispute over imposed changes to the structure of the school day which have seriously fractured the behavioural and pastoral systems in the school, as well as having a negative impact on the quality of teaching and learning. Teachers are working excessive hours and struggling to deliver the best quality experience for students under the new systems. 12 further days of action are planned during November, following eight days of action in September and October.

Our members have presented their concerns to management and completed two surveys with evidence of the very real impact the changes had had. They were brushed off, and told that they were just not giving the changes chance to bed in. When quality of education is being so negatively affected, bedding in would further this damage.

While the current model is in place, our members are working harder than ever, working more hours, and are seeing the deterioration of relationships with students and parents, as well as pastoral and behaviour issues going unchecked. Students have had the systems and practices that care for their wellbeing and support them to keep their learning on track and deal with any pastoral issues massively reduced. This would be a concern at any time, but when many pupils need extra support while living through a pandemic, the reduction in support systems shows no regard for pupil mental health and wellbeing. Academic achievement and excellent teaching and learning are underpinned by a solid pastoral and behaviour system. Without these systems teachers cannot do their best and students do not receive the best support.

The NASUWT has sought at every stage of the dispute to engage in genuine and constructive dialogue with the employer to avoid strike action and resolve the issues of our members. We have offered compromises and alternatives but these have all been refused, as well as being met with escalating threats and hostility from the employer and intimidation of trade union members and their representatives.

In July, planned strike action at Co-op Academy Manchester by NASUWT members was only averted at the 11th hour after the employer agreed to address concerns relating to pay entitlements and inappropriate practices on classroom observation and performance management which were undermining teachers’ morale, professionalism, and ultimately, their pay.

The Trust continues to operate a pay policy that is not agreed by trade unions which limits the pay progression of more experienced teachers.

Whist we welcomed the employers’ eventual acceptance of the need to address the concerns of teachers at Co-Op Academy Manchester, it is alarming that such disputes as this and Swinton are even reaching the point of industrial action in a trust which claims to be a model employer. Some of the tactics that the Trust has engaged in are a serious concern when any employer uses them, but to see a Trust, operating under the Co-op banner, use tactics like this is abhorrent. While this continues, the reputation and well-established heritage of the Co-op movement is being damaged and exploited.

The NASUWT has always been a supporter of cooperative schools and was the first union to sign an agreement with the Schools Cooperative Society and the Cooperative College to help promote cooperative solutions in schools.

We have no wish to see the reputation of the cooperative movement undermined or tarnished and we are committed to working with Co-op school employers in the interests of local communities, pupils and the workforce in schools.

We expect the Co-op Academies Trust to live up to Co-op values.

Anti-union-busting tactics and threats and intimidation against hard working teachers have no place in our education system and certainly no place in Co-op schools.

The Co-op Trust is at risk of tarnishing its hard-won reputation as a respected and trusted organisation if it does not demonstrate that it is prepared to listen to and work in concert and collaboration with its workforce.

The Co-op is rightly proud of being owned by its members, but it must put the needs of its own teachers and students back at the heart of its work.

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