A toxic relationship between staff and bosses at a London sixth-form college has led to unprecedented and “extremely damaging” strike action.
National Education Union members at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) have vowed to strike for 30 days – three days a week until the end of the academic year, putting a stop to many classes and disrupting the busy student exam period.
While teachers across England’s schools, sixth forms, colleges and universities take historic industrial action against below-inflation pay offers this year, the battle at NewVIc has ensued with a series of alleged attacks and “unacceptable” management practices from leadership.
In recent months votes of no confidence have been passed against Mandeep Gill, who became principal in 2018, and Martin Rosner, chair since 2020.
The college is performing well against the government’s key indicators, including holding a ‘good’ Ofsted rating and ‘outstanding’ financial health thanks to an operating surplus of £3 million in 2022.
But staff have blasted leaders for their focus on corporate and financial interests, which have allegedly involved cuts to administrative support and security and an under-resourced curriculum that has left many burnt out.
Workers also claim that their contracts have been changed without consultation to include Saturday working, among other allegations.
Gill has hit back saying that “some of the points raised by the NEU” at NewVIc cannot be considered in the way that the union would like because “they are the responsibility of the corporation or management” and “no one has the right to dictate to them how the college should be managed”.
This fight is the third dispute in the past 12 months at the college. Strikes last year centred around plans to academise the college, which were eventually dropped by leaders.
FE Week visited the picket line this week, where teachers spoke of the bad blood that has harmed the culture and community spirit of the college.
One teacher, who did not wish to be named but has worked at the college for 15 years, said: “The fact we have had three strikes in two years should show the strength of feeling that we have and how demoralised we are.
“The principal needs to show some contrition, enter meaningful talks, or he needs to clear out.”
Another striker said: “We don’t come here to make a tonne of money, we come here because we care about our students, we give a damn about their future. But we are not a business in Canary Wharf and the leaders cannot run this place as a corporation.
“We should not be out here striking again but we have been forced by the powers that be.”
Other staff who spoke to FE Week accused Gill and Rosner of being “authoritarian”, “disciplinarian”, “unprofessional” and “terrorising”.
The striking staff said the police were called during their protest and claimed that the leadership had accused union reps of unfounded accusations of racism.
A series of attacks on the NEU through emails and all-staff briefings have allegedly been launched by the principal and his team in recent months.
The college has just over 200 workers, 104 of whom are teaching staff. NEU reps said more than 100 of the employees are now members of unions and the majority have voted for the strikes and backed votes of no confidence.
But Gill claimed that less than a third of the college’s workforce was participating in the strike. Nevertheless, he said this strike was “unnecessary and extremely damaging to the life chances of our students facing exams this summer”.
He told FE Week that the strike could have been avoided after he agreed to mediated talks with the NEU through government arbitrators the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) – a key demand of the union.
But the NEU claimed the college leadership had repeatedly cancelled and delayed ACAS talks, which forced strike action to continue.
Chair Martin Rosner has also spoken out against the striking staff. He told FE Week: “The NEU initially raised a number of issues with us and, after a very thorough evaluation of the evidence submitted, we could see no basis for their complaints.
“However, what became very apparent was a targeted campaign and high levels of disrespect towards the members of senior leadership team.”
Rosner added: “The fact that the NEU NewVIc have now also brought into question the integrity of the independent governors further reinforces the point that there is no willingness to work collaboratively.”
He pleaded with staff members who are on strike to “return to work and allow discussions to take place in a constructive and mutually respectful way”.