Schools' safety - teachers demand fighting union strategy
Socialist candidate for teaching union deputy general secretary lays out clear programme
James Ellis, Socialist Party and National Education Union member (personal capacity), Leeds
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan for a reckless 'big-bang' full return of schools on 8 March leaves education staff, students and their families facing the prospect of an unsafe return.
With many parts of the country still seeing dangerously high levels of infection the National Education Union (NEU) is calling for a cautious phased return of schools, dependent on local infection rates, to ensure we do not see another spike in Covid cases.
On 28 February, NEU representatives from around the country attended a meeting called by Socialist Party member Martin Powell-Davies - candidate in the NEU's deputy general secretary election - to discuss a strategy for winning the union's demands.
The mood of education staff at the meeting showed they were worried but also determined to fight, with every speaker expressing dismay at the government's plans and agreeing with the need for concrete action to ensure a safe return.
It was made clear that Johnson is not 'following the science', with even the government's own scientific advisors in SAGE recommending a cautious return, and warning that a full opening of schools could see the R-rate rise by as much as 50%.
There were calls from workplace reps for a clear regional and national lead to be given by the union to support collective action, particularly in areas where infection rates are still high and rising.
Numerous speakers pointed out that a return based on a rota system would be much safer, with the reduced numbers allowing for smaller classes and more effective social distancing and ventilation.
Our proposed strategy follows a 'traffic light' approach with schools not re-opening until local case numbers are below 100 infections in every 100,000 and full numbers not returning until they are below 50 - providing proper safety measures are in place.
The current measures in schools are not adequate. The meeting expressed its concern over the proposed use of lateral flow tests. The Socialist Party has been calling for mass testing of staff and students from the beginning of the pandemic - but this should be done in a well-organised and properly resourced manner using healthcare professionals.
Instead, schools are being told to test all students using the controversial lateral flow tests. There are concerns about these tests' reliability and the ability of students to effectively administer them to themselves. Worse, there were reports of some schools using these tests as an alternative to close contacts isolating following a confirmed case.
Schools are being given a huge logistical challenge by the government - reopen fully and test all students' multiple times - but without being given the required extra resources. It was pointed out by several speakers that the government has consistently failed to provide schools with the time and money needed to make schools safe, with much of the government's extra funds being diverted to private tuition.
Local councils are similarly woefully underfunded, with many making education cuts even now - as was pointed out by a Tower Hamlets worker currently involved in strike action to save SEN services in the borough.
The mood was summed up by Newham NEU branch secreatary Lousie Cuffaro who called on the union to back up their demands with action. We should be balloting members now to prepare for a possible spike in cases and should be organising collectively using Section 44 workplace safety legislation in areas where school returns are unsafe.
Martin rightly pointed out that while the NEU has said it will support members who take collective action, in practice it has demonstrated an unwillingness to do so. Schools are under huge political pressure to open and the NEU needs to provide a counterweight to that to ensure safety for all. Martin laid out clear steps that school groups can take to do this alongside lobbying for regional and national coordination.
The mood at the meeting was clear; educators want schools to be open but in a safe and sustainable way. The only way to ensure this is through trade unions making clear demands on the government, backed by the possibility of coordinated workplace action.
If you are an NEU member and agree with this then call a school meeting, lobby your regional officers, and support Martin Powell-Davies' nomination for DGS.
Support the following Socialist Party members standing in the NEU elections:
Nicky Downes, Sean McCauley, Alex Moore, Sheila Caffrey, Louise Cuffaro for the executive and Martin Powell-Davies for deputy general secretary
- see - martin4dgs.co.uk
Show solidarity - back teachers' action
My profession has suffered attack after attack from the media. Teachers are fast turning into 'public enemy number one' and I'm sick of it.
We are trained professionals who know our students, know our subject, and will make fair judgements. Just like we did last year.
Throughout the pandemic, teachers have worked tirelessly (don't believe the 'extended holidays' lie) for our students. We have been forced into unsafe workplaces and as a result many have suffered. Teachers and education staff are not a 'special case' above other key workers, but I do believe that we have been treated particularly terribly by the government and media.
We want schools open more than anyone, but only when it's safe. We care about our students and our communities, and the action we have taken throughout this pandemic has been for the public good. I hope the NEU teaching union continues to fight for safe schools in the face of this government's recklessly fast reopening.
Educational disadvantage is a huge problem and education workers know that more than anyone. Once this pandemic is over, politicians and the media will forget about children's education. We won't.
Don't believe the lies being spread about education staff. Show solidarity and back any teachers taking action.
Teacher and Socialist Party member, Yorkshire
In The Socialist 4 March 2021:
International Women's Day
What we think