Johnson's reckless 'back to school' plans threaten everyone's safety
Education staff and parents organise the fightback
School staff are in the front line of the government's unsafe back-to-work strategy. The following three-page feature shows how they are organising and fighting for safety together with parents and local communities.
Education unions must give a clear national lead
Martin Powell-Davies, Socialist Party national committee and NEU member
The government is on course for a direct confrontation with school staff and their unions over its plans for a much wider opening of primary schools on 1 June. It's vital that unions now give a decisive lead to ensure that, rather than members feeling they have to accept putting themselves, their families and communities in danger, it is Johnson that has to step back.
On Monday 18 May, as many as 20,000 individual NEU members logged into a Zoom meeting to hear their joint general secretaries (JGS) explain how members can resist a reckless return to unsafe schools. As JGS Kevin Courtney explained, any agreement on safety would first depend on:
- The government publishing its modelling justifying that its plans won't be a risk to public health - and that the advice stands up to wider scientific interrogation
- Testing, tracing and isolation systems being properly in place
- Infection rates being at levels low enough to allow those systems to be able to operate successfully
- Local checklist compliance to confirm that social distancing, PPE, protection for vulnerable staff and their relatives, alongside other workplace requirements, were all satisfactorily risk-assessed.
There's absolutely no way that these conditions are going to be met by 1 June, or indeed any time soon.
It's clear that there's still hope amongst the union leaderships that the government will be persuaded by force of argument alone to rethink their proposals. But there's too much at stake for that. Force of numbers will prove the strongest argument - and the threat of a mass refusal to cooperate by staff and parents.
The members on the NEU call were correctly reassured that Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 and other legislation gave workers the right to refuse to work in an unsafe workplace. But the growing pressure on staff from some headteachers and employers means that there should be no further delay in writing to every union member to inform them of those rights so that members can discuss them, and act on them, together.
Union members must meet online together in workplace groups and across employers to confirm their legal rights. A simple message must now be made loud and clear - that schools can't possibly be safe to open further as yet, and that school staff right across England should, as one, refuse to put themselves in danger.
Clarity is urgently needed. NEU reps will have struggled to keep up with tactics that have changed from an initial position of general 'non-engagement' with negotiations, to one where reps are now being asked to go through a lengthy joint GMB/NEU/Unison/Unite union workplace safety checklist.
It's highly unlikely that many heads will be able to adjust group sizes and other arrangements to meet those checks in full, as is needed. However, there's a danger that some hard-nosed managers will try to split staff opposition by arguing that they have been largely met.
All reps need to understand that this local checklist is just one of the safety tests - and it's certainly not one that can be met by 1 June in any event. Even if acceptable local arrangements are eventually agreed, there can be no guarantee of staff and community safety without government action to meet the unions' national tests too.
With a clear national lead, and added confidence given to them by parental action too, school staff as a whole can assert their health and safety rights and force the Tories to think again.
School staff flock to meetings and union in record numbers
Coventry: NEU members are looking for strong leadership
Nicky Downes, NEU Coventry joint district and branch secretary, and NEU national executive committee (personal capacity)
Teachers and education staff all watched the announcement by Boris Johnson on Sunday 10 May in horror and disbelief. The National Education Union (NEU) and other education unions had no idea that he would announce that reception, Year 1 and Year 6 (and the day after, nursery!) would be expected to return to school by early June. It is a reckless and dangerous expectation.
Within seconds of the announcement, we had many messages such as: "Our school email has just gone crazy. We're all frightened for our students and ourselves. The head has just emailed and said she's reeling at the decision".
Within an hour, a national NEU survey had nearly 50,000 responses with 93% of those saying that they did not feel safe.
We were asked by the union nationally not to enter into any negotiations with heads or local authorities on a return, and to refuse further talks until the union's five tests are met. These include: testing for all not just those with symptoms, contact tracing, PPE, and a significant fall in cases.
By the first Coventry NEU members' meeting on Wednesday night, it was clear that concerns had grown, not subsided, as members in primary schools, in particular, grappled with an impossible task. How can you ensure any social distancing, especially with the youngest children? Educators in schools have found it almost impossible with just children of key workers and vulnerable children over the last two months.
We had 100 in the virtual meeting and over 90 left in the waiting room, unable to get in. This meant that we had to arrange a second meeting and urgently increase the capacity of our Zoom meetings. 125 members were at the second meeting. Across the country, huge numbers of union members attended meetings looking to the union for support, the biggest attendance of union meetings for decades!
It was clear from the outset that members were looking for strong leadership. However, they wanted to know how they could protect themselves if they were instructed to attend if their school was going ahead with the government's expectations. Lots of questions and issues were raised including supporting members and family members if they were in the 'vulnerable' category.
They wanted to know about practical issues like how they would set up classrooms, deal with break times, manage toileting arrangements, keep any form of social distancing. What if their own children were not returning to school? Could they be forced back if they did not feel safe? What rights do you have?
Local union leaders went through all the points and explained to members that contractually they have the right to refuse to work if they feel they are in imminent danger, and that they would be protected by Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act. Health and safety is taking centre stage in this crisis, and huge numbers of members have come forward to be health and safety reps.
There is a clear and imminent danger to our members, our members' families, students and their families, and the wider community. The fears of education staff have led to approximately 10,000 new members joining the NEU in a week. We need the leadership of the NEU to stand firm and only go back when the union's five steps are met. None of these have been achieved yet and our members in Coventry will not be forced to return until it is safe.
Worcester: schools' safety prep is window dressing
Sean McCauley, Worcester NEU state education branch secretary (personal capacity)
154 NEU members participated in the virtual NEU Worcestershire members' meeting on Wednesday 13 May. It dwarfed even the excellent turnouts we achieved in June and November 2011, at the height of the public sector showdown with the ConDem government over its austerity plans.
The level of feeling is running high amongst members. We have nearly 20 new workplace or health and safety reps since schools closed on 19 March.
Education staff in the meeting reported they were desperate to see schools reopened. We know far better than most how the quality of a child's education suffers when we do not have them with us. We know what we do and how successful we are at doing it.
Most parents would readily acknowledge that while they have been doing wonderful things with home schooling, utilising all the tasks and resources teachers have continued to provide throughout the lock down, the best place for learning is in school. And we weren't arguing with that viewpoint. But equally, parents agree that the provision at schools should not be expanded in exchange for increasing the risk to children, staff and communities to exposure to coronavirus. Schools should reopen. but only when it is safe to do so.
Headteachers in Worcestershire, like those in other areas, are under enormous pressure from the government to find ways to make the school environment safe for
reopening. They have stripped out all soft furnishings and toys in nursery, reception and Year 1 classes; they have zoned off two metre areas around desks with yellow and black hazard tape. For three to six-year-olds returning it will be like more like a prison that a welcoming educational environment.
Yet all of this amounts to nothing if the risk that infection will find its way into a school is still too high. Rendering a school safer in this way is only so much window dressing.
Bradford: some schools and academies push to reopen
James Ellis, Bradford NEU
Teachers and education workers around the country have been turning to their unions for support after the government announced plans to reopen schools from 1 June. This is especially true in Bradford where levels of Covid-19 remain high. Bradford has a high proportion of people from lower socio-economic and BAME backgrounds - both are groups that face a higher risk from the virus.
Bradford council, with the backing of over 80 headteachers and academy chains, sent a letter to the regional schools commissioner expressing grave concerns about the government's plan, and the potential safety risk it poses to the community. They confirmed that the vast majority of parents share these concerns, and that the government's announcement has caused significant anxiety amongst school staff.
75 members attended our online district meeting, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Socialist Party's motion calling for the union to seek a national agreement based on the NEU's five tests, and to support members in refusing to return to unsafe workplaces.
Despite this clear opposition, there are still schools and academy chains in Bradford pushing for a 1 June opening. It is essential that the NEU harnesses its members' renewed enthusiasm and stands firm against an unsafe return. The NEU must immediately inform all members that it will support a collective refusal to return to work, and empower local officers and reps to organise this.
Moreover, after this crisis the NEU must use its newly emboldened membership to fight for a fairer education system with higher pay, a reduced workload, and a focus on students' wellbeing and enrichment as opposed to exams and league tables.
Hull: new members get active
Mike Whale, joint secretary, Hull NEU
More than 70 new members have joined Hull NEU in the last few weeks, and 50 have joined since Johnson's announcement. A feature of those joining is that they quickly volunteer to be active as reps. We have held regular meetings of officers and reps to keep members in touch, and put out regular bulletins to all members. More than 60 members attended our all-members Zoom meeting.
At the same time, in the last few days a Hull parents' group has started to form expressly to campaign against the premature opening of schools. No one in Hull is falling for the bare-faced hypocrisy of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson who claimed that the non-opening of schools would hurt the most vulnerable children. Where were you Gavin when your government chronically underfunded special education and slashed spending on children's services?
Safety first: parents, carers, school staff and students together
Lindsey Morgan, Leicester Socialist Party
Solidarity is as important as ever in the wake of the latest attacks on teachers by the capitalist press. After demanding that students return to school when it is safe to do so they have been accused of being lazy, hysterical, and worse.
This is despite teachers already working to teach keyworker children and provide online resources, marking, and teaching for the majority of their students.
This is as well as ensuring that at-risk children are supported with resources, and encouraged to attend school. In a particularly obscene use of emotional manipulation the government has stated that teac,hers are making at-risk children suffer, pointing to those in violent households in particular.
These are the same Tories that have overseen the turning away of two out of every three women who attempt to flee to a refuge, the decimation of youth services, a crisis in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (with a frequent two year waiting list), and the infliction of a decade of austerity on these self-same families. How dare they?
If they cared so much about vulnerable families, why were they so slow to act when it came to free school meal vouchers? The rush to open schools is because getting parents back to work to earn profits is a higher priority than the safety of our communities. Thousands of teaching staff have joined the NEU in the fight for their lives and safety for all.
After reading material that I had written in the Socialist on free school meals, a number of parent friends reached out to me about it, and I suggested setting up a parent group. Quite quickly after came the announcements that children will be asked to return on the 1 June. So we created a group called 'Safety First: Parents, Carers, School Staff and Students Together'.
The Leicestershire campaign group is mainly made up of working-class parents who want to fight. We have forged stronger links locally with the NEU, which has been possible due to the work of Socialist Party members within the union. The aim of our campaign is to provide solidarity and support for all engaged in struggle for safety at school, and to boost the confidence of education workers in struggle.
We will be contacting schools, local authorities, MPs and multi-academy trusts to say that our children will not return until the NEU's five tests are passed. We are sensitive to the fact that parents are worried about losing their jobs if they don't send their children to school.
The government must make assurances that the choice for parents to send their children back is a real choice by providing them with the financial support they need.
The following is the text of an advice leaflet for parents produced by the Socialist Party.
Who does the government want back in school on 1 June?
Most schools have stayed open to safely care for small numbers of children. But now the government wants primary schools to open on 1 June for all nursery, reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children, as well as all existing priority children. That's over half the school back together.
But won't schools make sure they teach my child safely?
Schools simply can't open safely yet to more children. Young children sneeze and cough, they want to run and play together. It will be impossible to keep them safely apart. Shared surfaces and equipment will be infected. The virus will inevitably spread between children and staff.
Why are the government's plans so dangerous for all of us?
Infection levels in our communities are still too high. There is still no proper testing and tracing system in place. Nobody will know who is carrying the virus into school, especially as most children don't show symptoms.
Nobody will know which children and adults are then taking the virus back to their families and their vulnerable relatives. A 'second wave' of the virus will spread - that means more danger and more deaths.
Will this make my child unwell?
The government is trying to trick parents into thinking this can all be done safely. It can't. They say most children can't get seriously unwell with Covid-19. That's true - but some can. For example, while rare, there's a growing concern about an inflammatory syndrome in children linked to the virus.
But children also won't be happy. They will be told to keep apart from friends and teachers. Schools will be strange and confusing places. Emotional and wellbeing support also needs to be securely in place before schools open safely.
Why does the government want schools to open when it's not safe?
Their plans are not based on safety. If they were, you wouldn't start with the youngest kids who will find it hardest to keep apart. For them, it's all about childminding - so employers can tell us we should all be back in our workplaces, whether we think it's safe or not.
Of course, parents need pay and help with childcare. But safety comes first, not employers' profit margins.
When will it be safe for schools to open?
We can't trust ministers to know what's safe for our children. It's their failure to get infection rates down, and to make sure testing and tracing systems are in place, that are to blame for schools not yet being safe to open further.
Doctors understand health, not politicians. Their professional association, the BMA, says "until we have got case numbers much lower, we should not consider reopening schools" and that government plans are "too fast, too confusing and too risky".
They agree with staff trade unions that schools must have testing and isolation protocols securely in place first so that any outbreak can be controlled.
Parents and unions should make the decision together about what's safe for children and staff, not the politicians who have failed us.
It's hard for me to look after my child at home. What can I do?
It's been hard to have children off school for this long. But schools are doing what they can to support families with online learning and teaching small numbers of children in school itself. Contact your school if you need more help or if your child is struggling with work they have set. But, again, it's the government that needs to act.
They haven't delivered on their promise to provide laptops and broadband to families who can't afford them. They should be making sure every parent who has to look after children is fully supported financially, and telling employers that they can't force parents back to work before schools can reopen safely.
I agree it's unsafe. What do I do now to make sure we all refuse?
- Tell everyone you know - our children must not go back until schools are safe
- Contact other parents at your school and get organised together. Reassure them that the government has confirmed there will be NO fines if you keep children off school
- Join a trade union and get support if your employer is putting you under unfair pressure to return to work
- Write to your school and tell them parents think it's unsafe to open up on 1 June. Most headteachers have exactly the same concerns as parents. Your support can help them stand firm against reopening. But some will be under pressure to open anyway
- Where academy trusts, local councils or individual schools are planning to open as the government wants, parents should organise a mass refusal to send their children in
- Call a public 'online' meeting to explain and organise your action. Write to the press. Write to local councillors and MPs and demand they stop schools opening unsafely
- School staff unions are also organising to refuse to work in unsafe schools - contact your staff - or their local unions - and give them confidence that they have your support
Let's all refuse to send our children back until we agree it's safe
- Get organised with other parents - and with staff trade unions too
- Leaflets can be ordered from [email protected]
In The Socialist 20 May 2020:
What we think
Resist school reopening
Make transport safe
Socialist Party news and analysis
Workplace news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis