On Wednesday 31 March, their last day of term, almost a thousand students at Pimlico Academy, the flagship school run by Future Academies, sat down in the playground and refused to go to lessons.
The students were protesting a racist school uniform policy, which instructed students with afro hairstyles to cut their hair and students wearing hijabs to cover all of their hair; miserly and “humiliating” free school meal provision; the failure to support students that have been sexually assaulted at school; a whitewashed history curriculum and the cutting down of arts, music and technology departments. The protest also sought to remove their Head Teacher, Daniel Smith - or, as the image circulating on social media in advance of the protest put it: to “kick the racist out!”
For a statement from the students, see here.
The protest was the latest in a long line of events. In September 2020 students tore down the school’s Union Jack, took it to their local estate and set it on fire. Shortly after, they set up a petition against the racist school uniform policy. At the beginning of this week, staff and students arrived at school to see graffiti around the school’s premises declaring: “Pimlico Academy. Run by racists… for profit!”; “Ain’t no black in the Union Jack...”; “A white school for brown kids… are you mad?”
School workers, too, have been organising. Inspired by the actions of the students, the National Education Union (NEU) held a meeting on the evening before the protest, at which members voted 83:2 that they had no confidence in the Head Teacher. The meeting also voted, again overwhelmingly, to ballot for industrial action. The chief grievances are: authoritarian, bullying management; a failure to respond to accusations of racism and safeguarding concerns; a refusal to engage with the union; and excessive workload.
On the day of the protest, a delegation of six students met with Daniel Smith and with the CEO of Future Academies, Paul Smith, to discuss their demands. Two rather grovelling letters sent to parents set out some of the assurances given to the students, although they are, for the moment at least, quite insubstantial.
Future has agreed to take down the Union Jack for the duration of a consultation with the school’s “stakeholders”, and students will be invited to shape the way that Black History Month and other significant dates in the calendar are celebrated at the school. The major victory is the scrapping of the worst elements of the school uniform policy.
The school defended its curriculum and safeguarding measures, and yet safeguarding concerns were raised by teachers and other school staff that very day. With students as young as 11 taking part in the protest, school workers were troubled that management weren't keeping the pupils safe. At least one member of staff was threatened with disciplinary action for raising their concerns. In the end, Sixth Formers had to head to the local supermarket to buy crates of water to distribute amongst the protestors.
A combination of restrictive anti-union laws and slow union processes mean that staff will have to wait many weeks for a legal strike ballot to be in place. Widely-held concerns over the school curriculum are unlikely to be on the ballot, because of the narrow interpretation of what makes a trade dispute.
However, staff and students are committed to tackling racism and bigotry within the Future Academy chain. No doubt students will be feeling empowered by their protest and the victories they have already won. We can certainly expect more from these students if significant changes to the school’s culture aren’t forthcoming. Meanwhile, the National Education Union is already strong at Pimlico Academy and union members across the Trust are growing in number. With a strike on the horizon, Future Academies has got a real fight on its hands.