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18 November 2020

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Campaign for school Covid safety must continue

School Children photo: City Journal/CC

School Children photo: City Journal/CC   (Click to enlarge)

NEU exec rejects union-wide action

Martin Powell-Davies, Lancashire NEU member

The National Education Union (NEU) demands for Covid safety in schools have, once again, been totally ignored by government ministers. So, when the NEU national executive met on 12 November, you might expect it to have agreed a plan of action to answer this rejection. Sadly not.

The plan proposed by Socialist Party member Nicky Downes was voted down, with only six votes in favour. The overwhelming view on the executive, also put by the Socialist Workers' Party when they voted against the motion, was that members wouldn't vote for action if a ballot was launched.

Where executive members had opposed a ballot, unsurprisingly they got a response back that reflected the doubts raised by their leadership. But where a lead was given, and it was explained why action was necessary, it got support.

Simply concluding that 'there's no mood' leaves us exactly where we are now. Our demands will continue to be ignored.

The NEU leadership is throwing responsibility back on members, saying it will support action only when a school group calls it. But school-by-school action doesn't win national demands.

Most managements, although certainly not all, have done what they can to try and operate safely. But they can't solve the lack of testing or stand up alone to local authorities and the government insistent on fully open schools.

Members feel more confident if they are acting alongside other schools, not on their own. We need far more than occasional isolated action.


This lack of national strategy existed before Covid, particularly over workload. Again we were told there's no mood for a union-wide struggle to win a national contract.

The same problems arise. Union demands haven't been met.

Excessive workload continues to drive staff out of their jobs. Union reps and officers are drowning in casework.

The national union continues to send out petitions, emails, and publicity on social media, but it has no strategy for when they are ignored. Schools continue to operate in dangerous chaos, with staff and students ill or in self-isolation.

A different strategy is needed.

"We are a trade union, not a pressure group"

Only one motion was put to the National Education Union (NEU) executive meeting, proposed by Nicky Downes, one of the NEU executive members for the West Midlands and a member of the Socialist Party. It called for a disaggregated union-wide ballot for strike and non-strike action to win the union's Covid safety and workload demands. Here are extracts from her speech.

It's become clear that education workers are expendable. The students and local communities we serve are seen as unworthy of protection.

This union rightly called for schools and colleges to be included in this lockdown. But, on a national level, we had nothing in the back pocket to bargain with.

Our only response was to lobby. We are not a pressure group, we are a trade union.

French education staff strike to close unsafe schools, and London transport workers threaten action and win.

Our most at-risk staff are not being protected, nor are those that shield family members. Nearly every school in Coventry has had positive cases. And our infection rates are nowhere near that in the northern regions.

It's simply not true that every at-risk staff is working from home. Some have not even had their risk assessment updated. Some fear asking for working from home.

We have members that have chosen to continue to work in school. They don't want the stress of remote learning or the isolation.

We are not protecting our most at-risk pupils, or protecting the children of key workers as we did in the first lockdown. So many pupils are self-isolating or ill that schools are rarely fully open. Schools were safer for these groups of pupils in the first lockdown than they are now.

The suggestion is rotas for secondary school, but what about all our schools where social distancing is impossible and infection is rising?

It's not true

It has never been true that primary-age children do not transmit or are in well-spaced classrooms. Primary reps are asking - how are they included?

The union has successfully employed action short of strike action in the past. Why not look to that again?

These are national issues, which require national action. We have won small victories in some schools, but what about the rest?

We should be standing up to the government, not just to school leaders who often agree with us but are as constrained as we are.

We have a strong collective voice of educators, it's time we flex that muscle. Put all the options on the table, and ballot our members on both action short of strike action and strike action.

In Newham, we don't just talk about action, we deliver it

Louise Cuffaro, Newham NEU secretary

School-by-school action is exhausting for members. They bear the brunt of emotional blackmail by school managements who take it personally. Members do not feel the solidarity of being part of a national-led action.

Individual school action can win gains over single-school issues. Unlike those on the executive that just call for it, Newham National Education Union (NEU) is delivering it.

We have two schools currently on strike. One over an imposed expansion, with a proposed building not fit for purpose, the other opposing the summary dismissal of their union rep.

But this is not the way to defend ourselves against a pandemic, let alone end toxic exams, excessive workload, and league tables.

The strategy of talking members to death on webinars - with no opportunity for members to give reports, ask questions or demand action - is demoralising. The membership growth earlier in the year is being squandered.

The current leadership will be challenged from below. Elections for the NEU executive and the deputy general secretary are next year. It's time to replace those who will not lead.

How can we make schools safe?

The motion that Socialist Party member Nicky Downes moved at the NEU executive on 12 November demanded:

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In The Socialist 18 November 2020:

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Article dated 18 November 2020

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Hugo Pierre, speaking at Socialism 2020, 21st November 2020

Hugo Pierre, a candidate in Unison's general secretary election, speaking at Socialism 2020, 21st November 2020. Click here for a report in the Socialist. Videos will be posted soon.

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