Schools: operating partial opening

Submitted by martin on 29 March, 2020 - 4:40 Author: A primary school worker
empty school

Two or three weeks ago we were discussing with other left-wingers in the union the slogan of closing all schools straight away, and we were against it because of the impact on children of key workers, free-school-meals children, etc.

Since Monday 21 March the schools have been partially shut, but kept open for those categories of children.

In my school I've raised the issue of pay for supply teachers - and got agreement on full pay for them - and of contracted-out school meals providers - where we haven't won yet.

The school system is now fragmented (with academies, free schools, etc.), so management policies are different in different schools. A lot depends on local union activity.

In our area, Lewisham, almost all staff were asked to come in on Monday, and then we made plans for the following days.

There are only a small number of children in school - no school has more than 20 - and we're reaching agreement on staffing, with staff coming in limited days. We will probably move to "hubs" - only some schools staying open for the limited number of children - rather than all schools staying open.

In some schools there are issues with management workload demands for online teaching, but that varies.

Generally, in schools, where the union is strong, we have been able to take a lead and push things.

We have a problem for which there are no easy answers, which is that it is very difficult to do social distancing with primary-age children. Especially so, since most of the children coming in to school are not children of key workers, but children from highly-stressed households, who may find the emergency conditions especially hard to cope with.

Schools are likely to stay open in the Easter holidays. The union advice is to retain the staffing rotas we're now working out over the Easter holidays, but ensure that every individual gets two weeks off somewhere around that time.

My head teacher has a scheme to make that work. Others don't. But the unions is giving clear advice.

An issue for the future which I've raised with my head teacher is that if the current operation continues through the summer, it will be difficult for school staff to start regular operations again in September without having had more than a short break.

A big "no going back" issue for us is to make the abolition of high-stakes primary tests, and at least some of the secondary exams, like GCSE, permanent.

We've already found that the cancellation of the tests this year has helped teaching become more creative and educational.

A National Education Union activist adds:

On 14 March, the National Education Union (NEU) called for schools to close over coronavirus. Schools have been closed since the end of Friday 20 March.

The union has emailed regular briefings to reps and members, and a series of videos by General Secretaries Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted giving guidance and addressing issues. The union has also hosted two conference calls. The last one had more than 2,000 members on, with more members not being able to get on because the system couldn’t handle it.

The union has also issued joint guidance agreed with the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). It is weaker than the previous guidance from NEU itself, but gives members in schools a strong basis to argue with their school management for some minimums.

Problematically, the National Executive hasn’t met and decisions are being made by the officer group.

Below the national level, Regional Officers (full time, appointed not elected) have been assigned to Districts and Branches to support them. They are speaking to the elected officers, giving advice, spreading good practice.

In my experience this has been useful and valuable, but that may not be true across the board. It is also obviously open to abuse, with non-elected officials steering response rather than members and democratically elected District or Branch officers.

In Lewisham we are holding weekly District committee meetings on Zoom and opening them to reps and activists. We are issuing new guidance weekly.

Before the closure the national union issued guidance to all reps suggesting that they set WhatsApp groups for their school groups. We set one up at my school and it has been useful. We are recruiting members in our school on the basis that staff can see there is a union pushing for their interests in this difficult time.

In fact, by 27 March, the union had recruited 5,000 new members and 300 new people had asked to become workplace reps.

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