On March 30 and 31 National Education Union (NEU) members took strike action at Leaways special school, backed by Labour Party members and MP Diane Abbott.

These marked the 13th and 14th strike days at the private school in Upper Clapton, operated by the for-profit Kedleston Group.

Nearly 90 pupils attend Leaways with many previously excluded from mainstream education. All have established social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs with Hackney and other local authorities paying Kedleston over £53,000 per pupil.

With more action confirmed for next term, what lies behind this increasingly bitter dispute, which has already seen the dismissal of the lead NEU representative, Iain Forsyth, another union member dismissed, and four other staff disciplined?

Hackney Gazette: George Binette says that a threat to the NHS comes in the form of the Health and Care BillGeorge Binette says that a threat to the NHS comes in the form of the Health and Care Bill (Image: George Binette)

In September 2019 the NEU had only eight members at Leaways. By autumn 2020 its ranks had grown six-fold. Such dramatic growth suggests aggressive management has proved a good recruiter.

In late 2020 NEU members walked out for the first time over increased class sizes and management’s refusal to implement the full 2.75 per cent national pay award. The NEU also pointed to the absence of a pay progression structure and a cap of just seven days for occupational sick pay even midst the pandemic.

Beyond heating and ventilation of the school building, and the absence of outdoor play space, the NEU has made worrying claims about management’s failure to provide relevant therapies for students and so meet statutory requirements. This allegation poses questions as to whether Kedleston Group has provided adequate support to SEMH pupils and whether it offers value for money to councils.

More fundamentally, the Leaways battle highlights the emergence of the for-profit sector as central to the education and care of vulnerable children and young people. The pattern mirrors developments in residential care with offshore private equity profits subsidised by the public purse. The case of Leaways also underscores the need for a national campaign opposing central government’s chronic underfunding of SEND/SEMH provision.