Teachers at a Roman Catholic state school in south London have defied the Archbishop of Southwark by going on strike over the Church’s decision to cancel a visit by a gay author.
John Fisher School in Purley, south London, was forced to close its doors on Thursday, with striking staff saying they were “fighting for inclusive education” and against a “very concerning precedent for LGBT rights and representation in schools”.
In March, Southwark Archdiocese, backed by the Archbishop of Southwark, John Wilson, intervened to cancel a talk by Simon James Green, whose books for young adults feature gay characters.
The school’s leadership team and governing body had wanted the event to go ahead, which resulted in the diocese sacking a number of John Fisher’s “foundation governors”, the governors appointed by the Church.
On Thursday, members of the National Education Union began a wave of strike action, which is due to stretch over three weeks and involve teachers walking out for six days.
In a tweet, Mr Green said the striking teachers were “standing up for LGBT students everywhere who need to see the reality of their lives in books”.
Today @NEUnion members from John Fisher school are striking over my banned school visit and their sacked governors. They’re standing up for LGBT students everywhere who need to see the reality of their lives in books. Please show them how much support they have. pic.twitter.com/vUXBlwhx8t
— Simon James Green (@simonjamesgreen) April 28, 2022
On the picket line, one striking member of staff told i that teachers were protesting a “heavy handed decision made by the diocese”.
“Staff have been shocked, horrified, by the decision that was made that has caused so much disruption and hurt to our community, to our LGBT staff and students,” they said.
“We’re fighting for inclusive education and against what we view as a complete overreaction that didn’t consider the impact on the John Fisher community, that didn’t consider the effect on our students.”
A number of the school’s sixth formers joined staff on the picket line, with one pupil arriving to hand out sweets to his teachers.
John Friend, London regional officer for the NEU, said the strike reflected “the strength of feeling from our membership”.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a position where we’ve having to take action today because we’ve been given no meaningful agreement or assurances that any remedy is going to be given to our asks,” he said.
The NEU are demanding that Mr Green’s visit is rescheduled, and that the sacked governors are reinstated.
Mediation by the Acas arbitration service began at the school on Wednesday, but so far there has not been a breakthrough.
“It’s a very concerning precedent for LGBT rights and representation in schools, and for our members,” Mr Friend said. “Our members are affected by this approach, some of whom are LGBT+, it creates a discriminatory environment for them.
“It also creates an environment where professionals that are qualified to have the discretion as to what material should be taught, are not able to do so, and are being superseded by those outside of the direct education in the school.”
On Thursday, i revealed that new foundation governors appointed by the diocese had discussed the idea of sacking teachers who go on strike.
Three unions represented at the school have also accused the new governors of breaking governance rules in an attempt to oust Corinne Forde, a parent at the school who is the current chair.
At the National Association of Head Teachers annual conference on Friday, school leaders are due to vote on an emergency motion calling for the Education Secretary to investigate the diocese’s actions.
The motion reads: “This conference sends its support and backing to the senior leadership of the John Fisher School and the governors who have stood firm in their determination to recognise, value and celebrate the rights and the lives of the young LGBT+ people in their community.
“Further, that this conference calls upon the national executive to use all available means to ensure that the Secretary of State for Education investigates the removal of foundation governors at the school and continued attempts by the Archdiocese to appoint governors who are riding roughshod over existing statutory guidance setting out the arrangements for the constitution of governing bodies.”
On Wednesday, Ofsted published the findings of a snap inspection of John Fisher in March, in which it praised the running of the school by the head and senior leadership team. It said recent events had “unnerved and upset” the school community and left leaders, staff and pupils feeling “angry, confused and frustrated”.
Rob Kelsall, the NAHT’s national secretary, has written an open letter to the Archbishop of Southwark, John Wilson, to complain about the behaviour of the new governors.
“Since the formal inspection by Ofsted, and the subsequent appointment of foundation governors by the Archdiocese, the stability of governance has continued to deteriorate, specifically as a direct result of some of the foundation governors’ actions”, it says.
“Yesterday, I visited the school and have seen first-hand, disturbing evidence of continued efforts by some foundation governors to undermine the governance and leadership of the school and to act in ways not compatible with the Nolan principles, which are the basis of the ethical standards expected of public office holders.
“In addition, members have reported misogyny, intimidation and threats by new foundation governors, and unreasonable demands being placed on existing governors and staff. This is having a serious impact on their wellbeing.”
Commenting on the Ofsted report, the Education Commission of Southwark Archdiocese said it was “concerned” that there were “inaccuracies in the report surrounding the cancelled visit of Mr Green, with evidence appearing to be drawn solely from media reports. The Diocesan Education Commission has today written to Ofsted asking them to review the report again.”
The statement goes on: “Respect for the God-given dignity of each human life sits at the heart of Catholic education and respect is a two-way street. Literature that insults the faith, which in the case of Mr Green’s book was a highly sexualised re-writing of the Lord’s Prayer, understandably causes offence to many Christians, and as such has no place in a Catholic school.”
In response, Mr Green said: “The Lord’s Prayer scene in Noah Can’t Even has to be considered with the context of the whole story – this is a scene of homophobic bullying with an antagonist in the story using replacement words to abuse the central character, Noah. It is made obvious in the book that this behaviour is not acceptable.”