Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 11, March 28, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Forum

The Stand of the Education Workers to the Coronavirus Outbreak

Interview with College Representative of the National Education Union (NEU)

NEU General Secretaries, Mary Boustead and Kevin Courtney

WW: What are the issues facing teachers with the coronavirus outbreak?

NEU Representative: Since the schools and colleges have been closed, what has been happening and what was happening in the weeks as the coronavirus outbreak was getting more and more intense, is that many of the schools have adopted the use of communication technology to teach group classes on-line. This has raised an immediate question for staff because they have had to, in many cases, work overtime at weekends and evenings to prepare classes for that eventuality to teach on line. Although a number of schools have said they are are not asking for extra work from their staff - the reality is just that! Throughout the country staff are being asked to provide this extra commitment. Staff are responding because this on-line work safeguards education and their jobs. But it means that teachers are between a rock and a hard place as far as protecting jobs are concerned because of the changes in the scheme of work in order to provide all these things.

Secondly, there is the issue of covering for the children of essential workers in the coronavirus outbreak. The government suddenly announced that essential workers should have every provision and they have called on all teachers to volunteer to physically staff the schools. Essential workers is being defined to include health staff and essential manual workers who are on the front line and have to continue to work through the crisis. The problem is that the way it is being done in many schools is with teachers being pressured to go in - they may be placed on a teacher rota in the school even when they are either not well, or are vulnerable, or have unwell relatives at home.

Thirdly, there is the issue of job security. In my school they said they would lay-off temporary and casual workers with immediate effect and there is no compensation for them at all. Literally across the country hundreds of education workers have lost their jobs.

WW: What was the Union's stand and how did they take up the concerns of their members and school staff?

NEU Representative: It was in this situation, with all these issues being raised by the members, that my union, the NEU had to step in firstly in taking a stand to close the schools, when the government had continued to refuse to close them and at the same time instituting a national discussion among teachers and then presenting the response of teachers to the government and to the head teachers.

Back on March 16, the NEU said that they were meeting with Boris Johnson and demanding the schools close and that, if the government would not shut down the schools by Monday, March 23, they would order a mass walk-out of all their members. By Wednesday, March 18, the government had agreed to this demand and declared that all schools would close by Friday, March 21.

On Thursday, March 19, and Monday, March 23, the NEU organised something I had never heard of happening before. Using the modern communication technology, they wrote to all members and said that members could join in a national phone consultation where members could send in their phone number and at 6pm they would be phoned and they could take part in a phone-in where you could comment online and participate in this conversation with both joint General Secretaries, Mary Boustead and Kevin Courtney. I heard that some 190,000 members joined this discussion and on the basis of these discussion, the union lodged the concerns of the members with the government. They formulated their guidance on the issues raised by members in these phone-ins and on-line surveys that they did.

This guidance[1] is concerned with keeping all teachers safe when they are working in these schools and coming in on a rota to teach the children of essential workers. It ensures that any staff looking after vulnerable people should not have to go to school. It tries to achieve social distancing in schools which was one complicated question discussed.

The guidance formulated by the members advises on this and the risk categories of teaching staff and assistants and other staff who would not be asked to come in and teach. The union had determined that at the moment 90% of vulnerable staff had been allowed to work from home but that 10% of vulnerable staff had not been allowed. The union is looking into how to protect the rights of those workers. The NEU had issued a letter following these concerns being raised in the phone-in with the concrete examples agreed with the government where staff should not be pressured to go into work and they would expose those schools contravening this agreement.

There was also the need to look after the well-being of all the teachers and people who work in the schools, as the government's first approach was to deal only with the loss of earnings of salaried staff but not those self-employed with casual or short term contracts. These include, for example, supply teachers, teaching assistants, drama teachers, home tutors, visiting music teachers, physical education teachers and others who were previously not covered by the government's announcement on the protection of salaried employees. Then on Thursday, March 26, in the context of this approach the government made a similar announcement for those self-employed that it had done for full time staff the previous week saying these staff will get 80% of their average earnings from previous years, although this cannot be claimed until June.

WW: What is your view on where you are in activating people to deal with this coronavirus outbreak and its consequences for education workers?

NEU Representative: There has been a positive response at our school and I think this is reflected in a lot of schools. As a union representative, I was asked to join the special group that is now advising the Board of Governors. I asked for the views of members and one member that spoke to me wanted me there, he said, because of the stands I had taken in protecting the well-being of staff and we were about to meet with the head teacher. But then the school closed. What we were going to say to him was to focus on protecting the well-being of staff. I thought about this and put it to the advisory group, which includes the head of the finance committee. The wording which was agreed and put to the head teacher and to the Board of Governors is that we should as best as we can protect the integrity of the educational establishment and that part and parcel of doing this involved protecting the well-being of all the staff, including all the support workers, casual staff and operational staff. This was then agreed by the head teacher and the Board of Governors. At this stage we seem to be unified in maintaining this approach and outlook. However, in this what they term the economic climate at this educational establishment, they have stated that they can only guarantee everyone's jobs until the end of the academic year in 2021 and they cannot guarantee that they will maintain all the jobs after that. Also, we had an agreed 3% pay rise in September which has now been withdrawn, and incremental rises have been frozen. In addition, it should be mentioned that a number of schools are attempting to take teachers out of the Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS) and encourage teachers to adopt a private pension scheme instead. This is a fight which is going to be taken up.

Overall, it is necessary to keep all staff informed and communications have been set up so all can stay in touch over any developments. Our conviction is that the decision we took is one to move forward and build a real strength among the staff and involve all the NEU members in this discussion and perhaps roll it out even further. At our school we have over 100 members of the NEU and that means we can broaden that discussion to involve all staff to see what is needed going forward.


[1] (Part of the Guidance agreed with the government.) Thank you for supporting your union at this critical time. Thousands joined our conference call on Monday and many more filled in our survey on Monday evening.

From your responses, we know that our advice is in place in many schools and colleges.

We want to remind you of our stance:

1. If you are in one of the vulnerable groups outlined by Government, you should be working from home.
2. If you are a carer for someone in a vulnerable group, you should also be working from home.
3. The only children in school should be children of key workers, or other vulnerable children who really can't find an alternative. There needs to be a low number of children in school to slow the spread of the virus.
4. If you are not in a vulnerable group, we do want you to volunteer to be on a rota, so that those NHS parents can be at work saving lives.
5. Schools and colleges need to be as clean and safe as possible. We have advice on our website and are pressing the Government for more personal protection equipment and the introduction of testing.
6. When you are in school on a rota, your job is being with the children. It is not tidying cupboards, putting up displays or cleaning classrooms. Only staff needed to be with children should be in school, to minimise journeys and slow viral spread. In a minority of schools, we are hearing of unreasonable head teachers demanding that sort of work from our members. You will have our support in saying no.
7. There can be reasonable expectations for you to do work from home. We will be giving further guidance on that, which we are adapting as we learn more about actual working patterns.
8. Schools should continue to employ and pay supply teachers, peripatetic music teachers and agency teaching assistants.

We know there are different pressures and expectations for our members working in the independent sector.

Many independent schools are making extension provision for remote working. While members want to offer the best educational provision in the circumstances, this must be done appropriately and safely. Our members are seeking to provide the best education possible in the circumstances. But it is not business as usual. It is not possible, nor reasonable, to expect to replicate the normal school day online.


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