From 5 January all secondary and primary schools moved to being physically open only to vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Learning for other students is being offered online.
There continue to be struggles over the specifics of this. Firstly, the government has tried to widen the definition of children who can come in to these schools, to the point where head teachers and school leaders’ unions have sounded the alarm.
On Saturday 9 January the government was forced to clarify that key workers should send their children only if they cannot work from home. The numbers in school have increased compared to March-July also because the government has said that students who cannot find a quiet place to work or have difficulty accessing online learning should be included in schools as “vulnerable”.
This is a terrible balancing act: trying to ensure pupils can access education whilst limiting crowds to slow the spread of the virus and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.
“We need to use this momentum to ensure school groups are in control.”
In June the NEU wrote to the government arguing for them to open additional buildings, take on more staff, ensure students have laptops and WiFi access. The government has done none of that. Schools still do not have all the laptops that were promised for students who needed them in the first lockdown.
Unions will need to act to keep student numbers to an absolute minimum whilst making sure all children are supported and those who most need to be are in school. This decision is far better made by union school groups as they know their students and know the risks.
The government has said that nurseries can remain open and threatened to cut funding for those that do not. It has not provided the scientific justification for this decision, which may be more motivated by childcare for businesses than safety.
Unions are fighting to ensure that nurseries are treated in the same way as primary and secondary schools. Special schools are also an issue. All their students are classed as vulnerable, and often bring significant additional safety concerns, the need for close proximity and the issuing of bodily fluids amongst them.
The NEU is pushing for a tighter definition of vulnerable for those in special schools. Once again this will be best addressed by union groups in the school who know the students and can balance their needs with the need to slow virus spread.
The cancellation of A-Level and GCSE examinations and replacement by teacher grades is good news, as is the cancellation of all primary school statutory testing.
The persistent demand to recreate the curriculum and school day on-line is unrealistic and deeply damaging to both education workers and students. The government has said that students should have three to five hours online learning. That must be understood to include students working on tasks singly, not a full three-to-five hours of live-streamed lessons.
It is still too much. The current curriculum is often dull when delivered in a classroom. How much worse will it be delivered online? The cancellation of the tests means that educators should be focused on giving the students creative and inspiring opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge, not attempting to cram them with pointless information to get them through tests and exams that now won’t happen.
Following on the NEU’s and Unison’s successful campaign to get the government to announce the partial closure of schools, school workers feel emboldened. Membership of the NEU increased by 16,000 in a week. Around half of that number were support staff, taking the NEU’s support staff membership near to 50,000.
We need to use this momentum to ensure school groups are in control of school admissions, the curriculum and workload. Already, Redbridge NEU, by threatening strikes, has forced a school which was insisting that all staff be on the school site to back down. Lewisham, Greenwich and Newham NEU are all holding indicative ballots over workload and over the conditions for a wider opening when the transmission rate allows.