Job losses are on the cards at the University of Chester Academy Trust (UCAT) which was last year branded England’s worst performing academy chain in Department for Education research.

UCAT currently sponsors seven schools, including academies at Ellesmere Port and Northwich, as well as the controversial University Cathedral Free School in Union Street, Chester.

The Chronicle understands more than 30 teaching posts are under threat affecting secondary schools across the trust although teaching unions are not in position to comment as negotiations are at a delicate stage.

Related story: University of Chester Academies Trust branded England's worst performing academy chain

Concerns around the loss of teaching posts has sparked fears with the Unison union, representing school support staff, about a knock-on effect for its members.

Unison says the latest job losses follow three years of support staff cutbacks and ‘a damning report’ by OFSTED which found failings in leadership, transparency and accountability and poor financial management.

The union claims UCAT has seen a dramatic fall in pupil numbers of 22 per cent between 2012 and 2015, with predictions pupil numbers will fall by 26 per cent in the 2016 intake and further reductions are expected.

Keith Bradley, Unisons North West lead for schools

Keith Bradley, Unison’s North West lead for schools, said: “This academy chain is in a vicious circle of decline and it is children’s education that is suffering. Cuts to staffing levels mean rising class sizes and falling quality. Falling pupil intake numbers then create financial pressure to cut yet more staff.

“Parents in Ellesmere Port, Kidsgrove, Northwich and Warrington are being poorly-served by the academy system which means they must either send their child to their declining local school or travel further afield. Every community should have a good local school with a place for every child.”

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Mr Bradley added: “We have been working with the employer alongside the NUT and NASUWT to save jobs as cutbacks will damage the children’s education in the secondary schools affected. We fear that support staff could be next in the firing line.

“Teaching assistants are already under enormous pressure and under-appreciated for the work they do. Teachers would not be able to teach without them. This goes for all support staff in schools who simply want to contribute to a first class education that they would expect for their own children. Unison is considering a ballot of members for industrial action in response to any further attacks on staff, many of whom are low paid.”
The University of Chester Academy, Northwich
The University of Chester Academy, Northwich

A UCAT spokesperson said in response: “The UK academy programme has attracted cross-party support and is now being adopted on a wider scale because its focus on taking a new and innovative approach to raising academic standards transcends politics, and because evidence shows that the academy ethos can work in schools where other educational methodologies have failed.

“It is unfortunate that Unison chooses to attack UCAT’s reputation in this way. By implication, this also reflects on the commitment of teaching and support staff at UCAT’s secondary academies mentioned in the press release.

"UCAT’s priority is to accelerate the pace of improvement and all four secondary schools are now showing positive signs of progress, as testimony to the hard work of their staff and students.”

The spokesperson conceded pupil numbers at UCAT academies had fallen between 2013 and the current academic year but stressed ‘so have numbers at other schools over the same period’.

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“The difference with the schools which became UCAT academies is that for the sake of continuity and stability for students, some restructuring was postponed until the academies were better established,” continued the statement.

“At such a crucial time for students imminently sitting GCSE and A level exams it is in everyone’s interests to avoid industrial action and UCAT hopes to be able to work constructively with the relevant unions.”

UCAT was created as a sister organisation of the University of Chester, opening its first school, University Church of England Academy, at Ellesmere Port in 2009.

On opening, it claimed the university’s expertise would 'allow outstanding and uniquely tailored support' in schools. However, in 2014 the trust was revealed as one of 14 barred by the DfE from taking over more schools.