Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 40, November 7, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Teachers' Concerns Both over Safe Conditions and over the Future of Education

The government is posing a binary dilemma for teachers in the lockdown, and generally during the Covid-19 pandemic, in a form of blackmail: either you keep schools open and jeopardise your health, or you close the schools and jeopardise the children's education.

This cannot be how the issue poses itself. The government is posing it in this way, saying there is a "moral duty" to keep schools open, because they are keeping the teachers and their views out of the equation, while it is the teachers who are doing everything in their power to take care of the children's education and maintain a safe environment. Compounding the problem is a lack of resources, both human and material, with many schools declaring a freeze on recruitment when the opposite is what is required. Enormous loads are being placed on the teachers, which the government refuses to recognise, or simply pays lip-service to. Even then, teachers are not regarded as front-line workers by the government. Instead, the rhetoric argues that teachers are just the unfortunate sacrificial lambs on the altar of the economy, and that "needs must". At the same time, schools do not have access to the funds required to completely guarantee a safe environment, not to mention IT equipment for staff and children. In many cases, teachers are dipping into their own pockets to provide hand sanitisers and the like.

It is true that the majority of teachers do not favour full school lockdowns. But this concern is taken out of context by the government. Of course, teachers love education and do care passionately for the future of the children. But as time goes by, more and more teachers are concerned over the safety issues, over the impossibility of being able to fulfil the government's guidelines, and of the refusal of the government to acknowledge the danger of schools as spreaders of the coronavirus.

Schools are assiduously maintaining the class and year group "bubbles" of the children. However, most staff teach a number or all of the different age groups and travel between these "bubbles" on a daily basis. Therefore, with growing evidence that schools are facilitating the spreading of the virus, the health of teachers is being compromised by these contradictory arrangements. In turn, this compromises the health of the whole society as staff and children spread the virus throughout the school, and then go home to their families. Furthermore, what is missing in the guidance is any provision for equipment for carrying out testing for coronavirus in schools or indeed the resources to cover this. Instead, teachers are being left to test themselves, and on an individual basis rather than as the school's responsibility. This is compromising the health of everyone concerned.

And there is no method of teachers holding the government accountable for its stand. When the teachers speak out through their teaching unions and on their own behalf, the government poses the issue as a conflict between concerned educationalists, which the government is supposed to be following, and the teaching unions, which are cast in the role of a special interest group, interested in their "members" and not society at large. This is far from the case.

Indeed, the situation brings into focus the whole question of the future of education and what society demands of schooling. The pernicious influence of "deliverology" is present, as evidenced in the rolling out of league tables, even within these constrained Covid times, of success or failure of the children's progress and development measured purely and only by exam results, of a conception of getting on in the world which is based on grasping opportunities and fending for oneself, and a complete absence of any real care or discussion as to how schools might change their approach at this time to look after the well-being of the young people in the teachers' care. What is education if it takes no account of all aspects needed for the healthy development of children and young people?

As in the health service, the influence of a corporate-led direction guiding priorities is felt. In contrast, the teachers aspire to cast themselves as the decision-making authority, and put the welfare of all above the privilege of a few.

As a further stressful and complicating factor, the government has decreed that as from October 22, schools have a legal requirement to provide equal education to pupils both at school and those forced to remain home due to the coronavirus, offering the so-called "blended learning" that teachers have come to dread. There are ways to provide online teaching and resources for children and ones that would be effective during this pandemic. However, they require enormous resources and funding, and the employment of many more teachers who can devote themselves to the online teaching whilst those who are delivering the "live" lessons in the schools can properly focus on their teaching.

Solutions suggested by the teachers and their unions have received short shrift from the government. They are regarded simply as "stakeholders", rather than thinking people voicing their concerns and solutions. For example, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee Robert Halfon said that closing schools would "damage children's life chances". No account is taken of the alienating conditions.

How can this be overcome? The way forward rests in teachers continuing to interact to discuss and work out solutions for themselves. Teachers are best placed to decide what is needed at this time, and their views and solutions need to be taken account of. This is the new perspective in which the initiative of the teachers is released rather than being suppressed. And they need to be given the space and time in which to operate. It is the case that right now teachers' proposals must be at the centre of the solutions not only to the health and safety issues but to the education issues also, taking account of and summing up their experience. And more teachers are needed to handle the crisis. This is how teachers can exhibit their responsibility and concerns as against the irresponsibility and arrogance of the government.

Proposals of Teaching Unions

The National Education Union (NEU) has called for schools to be closed to all but the most vulnerable pupils and the children of keyworkers during the lockdown.

The union has pointed to Office for National Statistics data, which shows that 1 per cent of primary school-age pupils and 2 per cent of secondary school-age pupils have the virus, with older teenagers. The ONS has warned that infection rates "appear to be steeply increasing among secondary school children".

The NEU's campaign has, it is reported, the backing of 150,000 teachers and support staff who called on the government to include schools and colleges in the November lockdown in England.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, told the BBC's World At One that the union is being led by the science. She said: "There's a real problem particularly with secondary schools now. If you look at the ONS data [it shows] the age range of 11 to 18, the rate of infection is now 50 times what it was on the first of September. It's the fastest growing increase in [infection] rate of Covid of any age group. On current trajectory that rate will double every two weeks."

She said in a month's time the infection rate in secondary schools will be eight percent. "This is a government which is very good at doing too little too late. We are arguing schools take part in this four week lockdown, and we use that time to create much better conditions for stable education. The reality is for our most deprived pupils, in the most deprived areas of the country, they are not getting into schools."

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has called for the government to rapidly update guidance, particularly on what teachers should do if they are clinically vulnerable and are now being advised to work from home.

A union source said: "It is right to prioritise keeping pupils in school. No-one is more committed to ensuring that children do not lose out during this time than those that have dedicated their working lives to education. Neither though does anyone want to see pupils or staff put in harm's way. We are particularly concerned that, once again, there is considerable ambiguity about whether it is safe for those who are clinically vulnerable or extremely vulnerable to continue to work in a school. The government can back schools by confirming full reimbursement of Covid costs, the continued suspension of routine inspection in January, cancellation of statutory testing and clarification on arrangements for awarding GCSE, AS and A-levels in summer 2021."

The NEU has introduced an app for teachers to voice their concerns. Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU alongside Mary Bousted, said: "For as long as schools and colleges remain open, they have to be as safe a working and learning environment as possible. Our new app allows reps to keep a real-time record of concerns and the progress of efforts to tackle them. Most problems can be resolved at school or college level, but when they are not, the NEU Escalation App will enable members to quickly seek outside help."

Unite the Union, the National Education Union (NEU) and NASUWT threatened to put forward pathways for possible strike action or tell members to refuse to work if schools do not have adequate safety measures. Unite, which represents school support staff and nurses, has warned today that if safety concerns are identified, it will be telling its members to exercise their legal right to withdraw their work until proper safeguards are implemented. The union also issued a list of measures that were needed to keep schools safe over lockdown, including funding for personal protective equipment, regular risk assessments, proper access to testing and full pay for self-isolating staff.

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: "It is vitally important that children are able to access education but if schools are to stay open, then all workers, including support staff and nurses, must be fully protected at all times. Unite will not tolerate the health of our members being compromised and if there is an immediate threat to their well-being we will instruct them to withdraw from work... The bottom line is that the safety of the whole school community, children, their families and staff must not be compromised."

NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roache warned of the risks to staff after concerns were raised about the enforcement of safety rules and said the union "will not hesitate to take appropriate action" if problems were not resolved. He said: "It is reckless for the government to assume that the publication of national guidance is sufficient to ensure that schools and colleges remain safe whilst the rates of coronavirus transmission in the wider community continue to escalate."

He added: "Fewer than one in five education settings have been contacted by telephone by the Health and Safety Executive and fewer than 300 of 23,000 schools have been visited by the HSE since the start of September. This is simply not good enough... The NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk as a result of the failure of employers or the government to ensure safe working conditions in schools and colleges."

Justifiable Safety Concerns

According to the NASUWT, more than one in three teachers (36%) reported that their schools had not updated or reviewed their Covid-19 risk assessments since the start of the autumn term. In addition, 38% of teachers said that they had not been consulted on any revisions to their employer's risk assessments. More than two thirds (68%) said they did not know if their school plans to update its risk assessment and nearly a third (29%) said their school does plan to update it. More than a quarter of teachers (27%) said appropriate measures had not been put in place in their schools to ensure adequate ventilation in classrooms.

NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: "In light of the widespread evidence of increased Covid-19 transmission levels in schools and colleges, employers have a duty to review and update regularly their Covid-19 risk assessments and control measures. Despite the latest government guidance which makes clear that employers should now take steps to maximise control measures in place, the government now needs to confirm how it will ensure that employers take all the steps necessary to limit the spread of Covid-19.

"The government must take tough action against those school and college employers that breach health and safety requirements or guidelines.

"The publication of new advice by the government will not be enough to prevent the continued spread of the virus in primary, secondary and special schools or in colleges. Fewer than one in five education settings have been contacted as part of the Health and Safety Executive's spot checks and only 200 schools have been visited by the HSE since the start of September. This is simply not good enough. More needs to be done to secure public confidence and to provide reassurance to teachers and other staff who are working hard to support children's learning and well-being during the pandemic.

"Employers cannot continue to keep schools and colleges open on the basis of outdated risk assessments that were produced when Covid-19 transmission levels were significantly lower."

NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: "The government have issued important guidance less than eight hours before national lockdown measures come into force, putting schools into a very difficult position. The NASUWT has been calling for guidance and other measures to keep staff and pupils safe during what is an unprecedented time for schools.

"Ministers now need to go further and issue more robust measures to protect all staff, including clinically vulnerable, pregnant, disabled and BAME teachers. There is widespread evidence of rising Covid-19 transmissions within schools and colleges which need to be tackled as part of a credible national plan from the government to ensure the safety of staff and pupils.

"If ministers are to secure the trust of parents and staff throughout the autumn and winter, they must come forward urgently in the coming days with a robust and comprehensive plan to ensure that all schools and colleges are safe whilst they remain open to all children and young people."

NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: "With grating familiarity, the government has once again delivered new guidance to schools at the eleventh hour. The growth of virus cases in secondary schools is shocking, with cases 50 times higher on October 23 than at the start of September. Cases were also nine times higher in primary schools. The virus levels are leading to many children being sent home as bubbles close.

"Clearly the government needs to find ways to break transmission networks in schools and colleges. It must prioritise schools for access to rapid turnaround tests like those being trialled in Liverpool, and should be making plans for secondary schools and sixth form colleges to move to a rota operation where children are taught every lesson but are at home some of the time.

"It is absolutely right for the government to say that clinically extremely vulnerable staff and students should be working at home. Requiring face coverings when moving around secondary schools is welcome, but their use more widely must be considered and other measures must be taken on social distancing. Much more needs to be done to make schools and colleges safe.

"We cannot afford this government's constant slow responses. The opportunity for a circuit-break at half term was squandered. Now we have this second lockdown, which will not work if schools and colleges stay open without the safety measures needed to prevent the steady rise in cases which ultimately spreads to the wider community. We need more extensive solutions and in particular a plan for rota operations after we emerge from this late lockdown."


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