Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 19, May 23, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Teachers, Support Workers and their Unions, Together with the BMA, Defend their Right to Decide

As the lockdown over the Covid-19 pandemic enters its tenth week, the R-number, which refers to the reproduction ratio, hovers between 0.7 and 1.0, differing only in terms of degree across the country. If it were to return to above 1, then the rate of increase of Covid-19 once more would be exponential where thousands more may die as a consequence.

From the start of the lockdown, following Parliament's passing of coronavirus legislation and the Prime Minister's announcement on March 23, teachers and lecturers throughout Britain have thrown themselves into the work needed to prepare for the new conditions. Online lessons and new schemes of work were prepared, and education workers worked throughout that week and then throughout the subsequent Easter holidays to put in place everything required to teach and continue to educate pupils and students within the new conditions.

Indeed, workers in all their collectives have embraced the new forms of communication such as Zoom, Teams, Skype and WhatsApp groups. For many people, it has not been easy. However, these new technological forms have given rise to and have enabled what amounts to a new and modern means of communication. It has enabled teaching of children in a way not previously conceived. However, it has also given rise to and facilitated widespread discussion within work places, in regions and as part of mass union discussions across the country. Whereas previously hundreds might have gone to a meeting, now thousands can participate at any one time.

One such example of this was on Monday, May 18, when the National Education Union (NEU) held an online Zoom meeting which included 16,000 of its members. This has never before been possible. There was a sense of excitement at being part of the decision-making, asking questions directly of the Joint General Secretaries, Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, and engaging in direct discussion about the most recent developments and concerns facing schools and the teaching profession right now.

All of this discussion stands in stark contrast to assertions of the various political leaders and parties who not long before had criticised the apathy of the British voting public on the basis that they were not interested in politics. This present crisis has, however, given the lie to this assertion of the government and others, and served to emphasise that the problem has been one of the exclusion of working people from decision-making, who with the outrage at the government have galvanised themselves into action. Workers everywhere have been actively participating in discussions on how to be effective and make their voices decisive. They have been drawing their own conclusions about what measures need to be put in place in order to safeguard the well-being of the whole society and end its dysfunctionality through the domination of private interests.

Amidst all of this very extensive and broad debate and discussion, Boris Johnson made an unexpected announcement on Sunday, May 10, that schools in England would return to in-school teaching from June 1. This came as a shock to the education unions and to schools throughout the land as neither the government nor the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, had consulted with the NEU or any of the teaching unions before determining this date.

By Wednesday, May 13, nine unions, including the NEU, AEP, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NSEAD, Prospect, UNISON and Unite, put out a joint statement. They called on the government to step back for the June 1 reopening date. They said that they, of course, wanted schools to reopen but only when it is safe to do so. They stated that the government was showing a lack of understanding of the dangers of the spread of the coronavirus within schools, and outwards to parents, siblings and relatives, as well as out into the wider community. They expressed the extreme concern of all their members that school staff would not be protected by social distancing, and that classrooms, especially of very young children, could be sources of Covid-19 transmission. Fundamentally, the statement said that not enough was known at this stage to set any early return date of schools; and it reiterated the principles and tests that, in the view of all nine unions, should be in place before schools return. The paramount concern is to maintain the safety and welfare of all pupils and staff. In order to do this, the unions have called for the rolling out of national Test, Track and Trace procedures in all schools, nurseries and colleges; as well as the provision of additional resources and PPE for all schools.

Finally, the statement called on the government to form a Covid-19 Education Taskforce to involve schools, unions and the government, which would be set up expressly to discuss and organise all that needs doing in the current conditions to safeguard the well-being of all and to ensure the continued education of the nation's children.

On Friday, May 15, the British Medical Association (BMA) threw its weight behind the nine unions, and fully supported their statement.

To widespread consternation, despite the statement and repeated attempts by the NEU to discuss their concerns with Gavin Williamson and the government, and despite a growing body of evidence supporting the concerns of schools and teaching and support staff, the government seemed determined to plough ahead with the June 1 reopening date.

And why? Why would the government not listen to the people who are delivering the education and doing the work at the "coal-face"; those who are experienced and knowledgeable in all aspects of delivering the various education programmes at all levels. But especially now. Within these conditions where education workers have given up their own holiday time and all their free time outside of delivery of the ongoing online teaching, to discuss and articulate from their own and direct experience what they believe necessary and required. They are the ones who know what is going on in their schools and what is needed in order to ensure an education which meets the children's needs and is geared to taking responsibility for the future of society. This is why the unions' statement concluded that the government's reopening of schools on June 1 is "rushed and reckless". It is not only ill-considered, but it abjectly fails to consider the wishes, experience and collective knowledge of the vast education workforce throughout Britain.

The NEU leaders have both condemned the government's proposal to reopen schools by June 1. In their opening statements in the online meeting on Monday, May 18, both Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney declared that the government was, in the view of the union and its members, simply wrong. They said that the date of June 1 has been chosen arbitrarily and that there was no evidence to support this decision. They said that the NEU has written to the government on three separate occasions and that so far they have not produced any of the so-called evidence. They said that the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, has written to Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney talking about the Five Tests. In fact, Williamson showed no sign of paying heed to the seriousness of the union's position.

The NEU made an interesting and important point during this meeting. They said that the NEU Check List "is to confirm when we say it is OK for schools to open; not for schools to use in order for them to decide that they have met the criteria and then for them to take a decision having met them". They also said that the NEU has produced a 20-page document outlining the union's Check List which is a set of guidelines to be used before it can be deemed safe for schools to go back. This is available for everyone to see and can be downloaded from their website.

Another issue about which the NEU is concerned is the question of who should be asked to teach in the classroom once schools do return to face-to-face teaching. The government has said that those who are "extremely vulnerable" will not have to teach in the classroom and can continue teaching virtually. However, the NEU says this definition is not enough. They have identified four categories of people who might be classed as "At Risk". These include:

i) Extremely vulnerable - those with immune deficiencies or other existing health conditions;

ii) Those who live with extremely vulnerable workers;

iii) Clinically vulnerable - pregnant women and those who have underlying health conditions such as mild to moderate asthma;

iv) Those who live with clinically vulnerable people.

At this point, the government is only recognising the first category.

It is clear that before schools should reopen the government must publish its scientific advice. Mary Bousted has stated that "we need to see the evidence, and the evidence needs to survive the scrutiny of scientific bodies and others" before we should be setting a return date. She said that to support this scientific advice, the Test, Track and Trace system needs to be up and running before any conclusions can be made. Kevin Courtney added that the risk to Afro-Caribbean and Asian people is much greater, and that all the evidence is showing that the risk for these people to return to work is much greater and the risk to them as a consequence, is much more dangerous.

In conclusion, it is clear that, as Mary Bousted said, "Education and schools are not going to be the same for a long time." In the coming year, "it simply cannot be business as usual, and it won't be possible for schools to get through those massive syllabuses". Further, she said that "the whole focus on catching up is wrong and any discussion of the way forward has to be in the context of recognising that nothing is the same, and that any solutions are going to have to be creative". Kevin Courtney added, "Schools will be in such a different position, even come September. So an early return of schools can have no meaningful outcome, and certainly no useful contribution to our education system."

The real issue at this time is: Who decides? The NEU alone has a membership of 450,000. The vast majority of these members stand alongside their union, and have been in very close discussion with them asserting that they do not think that schools should be returning on June 1. The government is not listening to those that do the job of education. And why not? Surely any responsible government would want to both listen to and act on the advice of the experts; those who deliver the education to pupils. Instead, they seem bent on serving the interests and the diktat and financial concerns of big business and the monopolies. Why else would they endanger not only all those that work within the education system, and not only school children, but potentially the whole of society, should it precipitate a resurgence of the pandemic?

Schools should only open when it is safe to do so. Education workers must decide!


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