Oaks Park School: valiant strike exposed state of schools

by James Ivens, London Socialist Party

The intrepid strike at Oaks Park School in Redbridge, east London, exemplified many of the problems facing school unions today. A culture of bullying, Covid safety, rep victimisation, industrial leverage and political representation all came under the spotlight.

Oaks Park picket line 2 November
Photo: Paul Mattsson

The National Education Union (NEU) took 33 strike days in half a year – probably the longest strike since the NEU’s formation in 2017.

Staff at the council-run secondary date problems back to 2016. A new head installed a top-down, punitive regime. Experienced workers left in droves.

Younger staff – viewed as cheaper and more pliable – entered a school with a culture of bullying and fear. This was in line with the national trend. Excessive workload and exam-factory conditions, under bosses who lead like sweatshop masters, not educators.

Almost every picket line at Oaks Park heard shocking tales of management bullying. Not just against workers, against students too.

There’s been a crying need for national action on the issues beneath this culture, like workload and pay, for years. Socialist Party members have long campaigned for this within the NEU.

‘Section 44’

In this context, reps led a successful fight against dangerous Covid reopening in January 2021. This was part of the national swell of ‘Section 44’ notices that forced Boris Johnson to U-turn and declare school opening unsafe.

Again in line with the national trend, management combed through both reps’ records looking for slip-ups to weaponise. The head (and behind her the borough council) saw a combative NEU as too big for its boots.

Bosses wanted revenge for the Section 44 victory. They launched actions against both NEU stewards within a week of each other.

Realising this was too blatant, they backed off from school rep and music teacher Bill Stockwell – but dismissed fellow rep and media teacher Keiran Mahon.

No sooner had the strike ended than they threatened Bill again, although lacking the confidence for formal action.

The NEU won a mandate for strikes on rep victimisation and bullying culture. Action began on Tuesday 15 June 2021.

In the summer term, two other staff who had lost their jobs after the Section 44 action won them back because of the strike. Bosses dragged their feet on everything else.

The national union maintained 100% strike pay and granted all requests for action. A small core of strikers fought an extraordinarily determined battle. But unfortunately, a number of NEU members who had voted for action, perhaps too affected by the culture of fear, didn’t join it.

Redbridge NEU explored every avenue for additional pressure. Strikers met with parents, leafleted feeder schools, lobbied the council, the MP, even London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Labour council

In the eyes of many workers, the Labour local authority should have had their backs. Instead, it gave tacit approval to a head’s union-busting behaviour, ignoring a whole dossier of evidence.

Local Labour MP Wes Streeting, former shadow schools minister, rallied behind the bully boss. The Labour mayor of London was silent.

Those lefts remaining in the ranks of Redbridge Labour did support the union. But one of the strike’s memorable picket songs, set to the Wild Rover, was telling. Strikers would vote for Labour – or at least Redbridge leader Jas Athwal – “nay never no more”. NEU national executive and Socialist Party member Louise Cuffaro got loud cheers when she called for independent, trade union candidates to stand against anti-worker Labour politicians.

In the end, the strike forced management to the table. Bosses conceded an independent inquiry into the ‘breakdown in industrial relations’. They are already trying to renege on that.

Strikers marched back in to supporters’ applause on 26 November. They asked that consistent supporters, specifically including the Socialist Party, be invited to the end of strike rally. The National Shop Stewards Network was a picket stalwart too.

Keiran Mahon has still not had justice. He’s due in court in February, the NEU supporting its victimised rep to the bitter end. Remedy Recruitment is under investigation for supplying strike-breaking agency labour.

This brave and resolute struggle exposed the appalling state of Oaks Park management. How many more Oaks Parks are out there? National trade union struggle, and a workers’ political alternative, would give confidence to even more workers to join the fight for education.

Oaks Park school strike ends following forced concessions


by James Ivens, East London Socialist Party

Oaks Park school strikers in east London were applauded back into work on 26 November by supporters, having concluded what is apparently the longest strike in the National Education Union’s history. 30 days of action over two terms has wrested important concessions from a bullying management.

But there is still more to fight for. Victimised rep Keiran Mahon is still battling for justice, supported by the union. The school’s culture of bullying and fear needs to be addressed – with national strike action key to tackling the high workload that drives it. And the disgraceful anti-union attitude of the local Labour council and MP demands a political alternative from the unions.

But the courageous, determined struggle of the Oaks Park workers has shown the way.

Oaks Park school strike spurred on by head’s lies


by James Ivens, East London Socialist Party

Defiant Oaks Park school workers hit the ground running with a picket line of over 30 on 2 November. The first strike day after the half-term break followed fresh insults from bosses.

National Education Union members at the secondary in Redbridge, east London, have been striking against management bullying since summer. But in a letter to parents after half-term, the head claimed this issue was news to her!

She dismissed her staff’s “false narrative” as having given “no evidence”. She knows full well that the Labour council responsible for Oaks Park received a whole dossier of evidence months ago. Recent negotiations – which she broke off – included attempts to agree an independent inquiry!

Meanwhile, pickets told the Socialist that right before half-term yet another staff member was forced out. It would seem he is just the latest victim of the bullying culture at Oaks Park, joining sacked rep Keiran Mahon and countless others.

Louise Cuffaro, NEU executive and Socialist Party member, joined the picket line again on its 24th day. “I’ve asked a few of you what should I be saying to the top of the union? And people say ‘support’ – and you do have support. But actually, real support by the union is national action.

“The victimisation and bullying at this school is replicated everywhere. If we can have some national action, like we had with ‘Section 44’, then I believe all these things would be driven back. The national union needs to show that we will stand up and fight.

“And I raise pay, and I raise workload – because that’s really where the bullying comes from. If we’re going to fight back on pay, workload, and the bullying culture that encompasses that, we’re going to need national action. The union now needs to move to do a national ballot.”

A growing number of parents are getting organised, and due to meet soon. And having been ignored by their Labour council and MP, strikers will take the fight to London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan.

Join the rally outside City Hall on Monday 15 November at 5.30pm. Strikes are due to continue every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday until 25 November.

Oaks Park pickets vote for more strikes to defeat bullies


by James Ivens, East London Socialist Party

Strikers at Oaks Park secondary school in Redbridge, east London, have told bosses they’ll fight bullying till the bitter end.

Pickets voted on extending action on the morning of 12 October, day 18 of the strike. The result: unanimous, to seek authorisation from the National Education Union (NEU) for a further nine days.

NEU Deputy General Secretary Election: Vote Martin Powell-Davies

Oaks Park picket line 12 October
Photo: Rob Williams

This escalation followed the employer’s last-minute withdrawal from talks with no clear explanation. A potential settlement to the dispute had been in sight.

The strike’s first victory was last term. It secured jobs for two workers victimised for protecting health and safety during the second wave. They had used ‘Section 44’ rights to stay away from the Covid-unsafe school, instead working from home.

The second issue, still at stake, is victimisation of NEU rep Keiran Mahon. Keiran also invoked Section 44. He was a local leader in the national movement to keep schools safe. A resolution appeared possible here until bosses shut down talks again.

The final issue, underlying health-and-safety victimisations, is a culture of bullying. The strike has forced a truculent Labour council to appoint an ‘independent’ investigator here – but he needs agreement on terms from both the union and the bullying head.

Meanwhile, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate is investigating Remedy Recruitment to see if it has committed a criminal act in supplying labour during an official strike. The NEU accuses Oaks Park school management of aiding and abetting this. Any teacher accused of such would immediately be suspended pending investigation.

The council told the union the school was appointing an independent investigator on this issue. Incredibly, however, the school has appointed one of its own governors!

School and council bosses will have been hoping for the strike to ‘go away’ by half term. A further nine days will take the action beyond the break. It’s still going strong, with another worker joining for the first time on 12 October. Strikers plan another demonstration on 16 October.

Redbridge’s ‘Labour’ council is still, in effect, colluding with a bullying and strike-breaking school management. This ongoing scandal shows the need for independent trade union and community candidates in the May 2022 elections.

Oaks Park strikers call eleven days’ more action


by Lily Douglas, Waltham Forest Socialist Party

The Oaks Park picket line on 15 September was as angry and determined as the day it began, when school workers said ‘enough’ to bullying management and the unjust letting go of National Education Union (NEU) rep Keiran Mahon. As before, McDonald’s and homemade cookies were bought to fuel the strikers, while school rep Bill Stockwell played morale-building tunes on his cornet.

Workers at Oaks Park are continuing their support
of victimised NEU rep Keiran Mahon

To the school workers’ delight, two past students attended the picket, stating that they had found the movement on social media and wanted to find out more after being told that the allegations and strike were not real. The news that the union had announced eleven more days of strike action, starting on 29 September, only served to add to the mood of the pickets before going to lobby their local MP.

When strikers went to the office of Blairite Labour MP Wes Streeting – who has so far refused to back the union — the office was locked, with the blinds down. School workers, who just wanted to speak to Streeting and his staff, peeked under the blinds and saw they were in, but hiding!

So far, the strikers have also been talking to parents and organising meetings to build a strong force against school management, which has proven to be a useful auxiliary tactic in the school strikes. This as was also shown with the Avenue Primary School strikes in Newham, when parents supported picket lines and even occupied the office.

While parents storming the school reception is not promised to happen every time, it shows the power of school workers, parents, and the union united. The strikers also took their campaign to the council chamber, asking questions and unfurling banners.

The strikers heard a message of support read out from Socialist Party member and NEU deputy general secretary candidate Martin Powell-Davies. While recognising the incredible significance of supporting local districts and schools like the Oaks Park strike, he also campaigns for the union to be prepared to build for strike action nationally.

Oaks Park school: Redbridge Labour backs strike-breaking bullies


by James Ivens, East London Socialist Party

Illegal strike-breaking, a dossier of testimonials about management bullying, and victimisation of a union rep who fought for Covid safety. Why is the Labour council in Redbridge, east London, still backing bosses at council-run Oaks Park secondary?

Steadfast strikers were back on the picket line from the second week of the new academic year. The National Education Union (NEU) rally on 11 September was even bigger than last term’s protest at Redbridge Town Hall.

Oaks Park picket line 15 September
Photo: Rob Williams

The strike last term forced the head to call repeated ‘sports days’ – even enticing former students to cover them with a free lunch. She has now stooped to a new low.

The school apparently called in agency staff to cover the strikers’ classes, which is against the law. The NEU alleges that management also falsified the records. The police have received a crime report from the union. No peep from the Labour council.

That same council has received a dossier with harrowing accounts of management bullying, including:

“I had staff almost daily come into my office crying…” “The staff turnover rate is alarming, staff morale at an all-time low…” “I was physically sick on the way to work most days due to anxiety…” “I have never experienced as toxic an atmosphere as the one at Oaks Park…”

These stories – and worse – can be heard on emotional Oaks Park picket lines. It is outrageous, but sadly inevitable, that some stories feature students as well as staff.

Strikers cornered the council’s director of education, Colin Stewart, on the 8 September picket line. He denied the avalanche of testimonials amounts to a pattern of bullying!

This is after the chair of governors stood next to bosses accused of bullying and demanded bullied staff explain their allegations.

Meanwhile, sacked union rep Keiran Mahon has still not received justice. He faced dismissal within months of his election.

He and other NEU members had invoked ‘Section 44’ health-and-safety law at the height of the pandemic. They protected lives by refusing to enter unsafe, packed classrooms and instead taught remotely.

The union makes a clear argument that the supposed case against Keiran is grossly overstated and contradictory. But there has been no serious engagement with this by a school management which put lives at risk during the pandemic.

At the rally on 11 September, Labour was warned. NEU executive and Socialist Party member Louise Cuffaro said: “There are elections coming. Watch out!

“We won’t be voting for you. We’ll be voting for people from the community, from the trade union movement, who are prepared to stand up and fight back.”

End bullying and victimisation at Oaks Park school

7TH JULY 2021

Staff at Oaks Park High School – a large community school in Redbridge, east London — who have been striking over the victimisation of a trade union rep, and against a wider culture of bullying, lobbied Redbridge Town Hall in Ilford on 5 July.

The strike action has already secured jobs and maternity pay for several bullied workers. Strikers are preparing for a final push next term to get justice for their unfairly sacked rep Keiran Mahon. At the rally workers asked: Why isn’t the Labour council intervening to end this bullying at a school which it runs? Indeed, what is the point of Labour if it acts like the Tories? The lively rally was attended by Socialist Party members and other supporters. Legal restrictions mean the next round of strikes will be in September.

by Ferdy Lyons, East London Socialist Party

30TH JUNE 2021

Updates and more pictures, 1st July 2021 on the London SP Facebook page, here and here!

Tuesday 29 June saw the start of another three days of strike action by staff at Oaks Park High School – a large community school in Redbridge, east London, – over the victimisation of a trade union rep, and against a wider culture of bullying.

This action has already secured jobs and maternity pay for several bullied workers. Strikers are preparing for a final push next term to get justice for their unfairly sacked rep Keiran Mahon.

Oak Park school workers’ picket

The picket was well attended and in high spirits, with strikers chanting: “Stop bullying staff” and “What’s disgusting, union busting!” and singing ‘Solidarity forever’ and ‘We shall not be moved’ accompanied by one of the reps’ trumpet.

The strike is visibly growing in confidence and cohesion. It’s been helped by pickets sharing harrowing stories of how the leadership of the school has bullied them. They are continuing to bully and intimidate staff to break the strike and deter more members from going out. Pickets told me that the school leadership is perpetuating lies about those who are out on strike and what the details of the strike are.

For the first time the picket even saw the presence of the police who reportedly were called in by the school management, falsely claiming previous picket lines ‘hurled verbal abuse and objects’. However, the officers were pleasantly surprised by the offer of cake and coffee from the picketers instead, much to the chagrin of the school leadership at the gates!

Bullying and unendurable workloads are problems in schools up and down the country and the National Education Union needs to unite the fightback by coordinating a national campaign.

On Monday 5 July, 5pm, there is a rally planned outside Redbridge town hall in solidarity with the Oaks Park strike. Why isn’t the council intervening to end this bullying at a school which it runs?

Legal restrictions mean the next round of strikes will be in September.

Oaks Park school strike stands strong against bully bosses

24TH JUNE 2021

by James Ivens, East London Socialist Party

Oaks Park strikers chant “Redbridge Council, Tories in Disguise”

Bully bosses looked agitated as Oaks Park High School pickets belted out ‘Solidarity Forever’ to the peals of a union rep’s trumpet on 22 June.

That Tuesday was the second strike day at the council-run secondary in Redbridge, east London. The National Education Union (NEU) is defending a sacked rep and three other staff victimised for exercising ‘Section 44’ health-and-safety rights.

Workers on strike to defend victimised reps at Oak Park school

Assistant heads policed the gates like bouncers. Students filed past a loud and spirited picket line demanding: “Stop the bullying!” The culture under the new head has led to the departure of many longer-standing staff and fear in the workplace.

The borough’s Labour council has opposed the union, siding with the bullying senior leadership team. As we go to press, strikers plan to march on Redbridge Town Hall on 23 June. If Labour councillors refuse to stand up for workers, trade unionists should consider standing independent candidates against them.

The strike has caused significant disruption, with classes packed together in the sports hall. This flies in the face of Covid safety as case numbers rise – and underlines management’s blasé attitude to student and staff welfare. Bosses even brought back older students with the promise of a free lunch to supervise ‘sports day’, as cover for the striking staff!

Despite the culture of fear and strike-breaking efforts, numbers on the picket line remain strong. But naturally, the bullying is not limited to the staff.

One picket told the strike rally that a senior manager had recently remarked on a student’s skirt length: “Don’t you have any dignity?” Standing up for herself, the student asked “does it make you uncomfortable, sir?” He reportedly replied: “Extremely!”

School workers were outraged at this sexist attack. They also noted that white students with skirts of the same length were not subjected to similar comments.

Louise Cuffaro, newly elected to the NEU’s national executive committee, joined fellow Socialist Party members on the picket line. “The very solidarity you’re feeling here is the solidarity you should be feeling every single day in the staff room!”

But “you have to fight to get the time to get the break in the staff room!” The fights against bullying and intolerable workload are fights the NEU must take up nationally.

The next planned strike days are Tuesday 29 June to Thursday 1 July.

Redbridge school walkout over victimised union rep

22ND JUNE 2021

Update 22nd June 2021: National Education Union national executive member Louise Cuffaro supporting the strike at Oaks Park High School this morning, alongside fellow Socialist Party members. School workers have had enough of bullying and victimisation. Victory to Redbridge NEU and the Oaks Park strike!

Louise Caffaro speaks

21ST JUNE 2021

Teachers and support staff working at Oaks Park High School in Redbridge have walked out in defence of their union rep who has been sacked and three other workers (including a pregnant woman) who have been told they will not have jobs in September.

Oaks Park High School strike
Photo: East London SP

According to their union, the National Education Union (NEU) they have been victimised because they refused to be put in an unsafe workplace at the height of the second wave of the pandemic.

In January, all four, including the union rep, exercised their legal right under section 44 of the health and safety act to refuse to work in an unsafe workplace.

The employer threatened these workers that they were in breach of contract and could face disciplinary action or a cut in their pay if they would not work onsite rather than from home as most school workers across the country were at the time.

Glenn Kelly, National Education Union (NEU) regional officer, said: “The union believes that the school is seeking to wreak revenge on the union rep and other members because they were forced to back down over COVID working earlier in the year”.

The next strike dates are 22-23 June, 29-30 June and 1 July.