On Sunday 10 May, in a pre-recorded message, Boris Johnson, stated the government’s desire to open primary schools to all Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils on 1 June. He also said he hoped that Year 10 and Year 12 would be able to get some face to face contact in the near future.
Further guidance from the government then added nursery age children in primary schools to that list.
The announcement was shocking and reckless, and sent a paroxysm of fear through school workers, particularly in primary schools. The science for the “reopening” seemed very weak at best. Recognising (as primary school workers had been saying all along) that it would be impossible to socially distance primary-school-age children, the guidance just said it wasn’t necessary!
Since 1 May the National Education Union had set five tests which it said should be met before any return to schools is possible. These include the following:
• A much lower number of cases, with a sustained downward trend, and testing and tracing in place
• A national plan for social distancing
• Comprehensive regular testing for children and staff
• Whole school strategies with protocols in place in the event of any case of Covid-19
• Protection for the vulnerable and those who live with the vulnerable, in particular continued shielding.
Other measures need to be added to the tests
• Continued support for self-isolation and Covid sickness, i.e. sick pay not counted against entitlements and absence not include in managing attendance procedures. A punitive approach to sickness and isolation will lead workers to come in when they shouldn’t and put everyone at risk.
• Full sick pay and self-isolation pay for supply teachers, other agency workers and outsourced school workers. We are not safe if our supply or ancillary staff feel forced to come to work while ill or at risk to avoid loss of income.
• Full sick pay and self-isolation pay for all parents and carers.
• Any return must be phased and agreed with our unions
• The curriculum priority must be to welcome and reintegrate children and young people to the school community, to recognise and respond to the situation they have been through and to provide some enjoyment in learning
• The pause of non-essential processes must remain, e.g. performance management, support plans, capability, absence monitoring.
Schools are not closed. In the lockdown, they never have been. In fact, schools have been open over Easter and bank holidays and so for longer than in any other year.
They have remained open for a very limited number of pupils and for a specific purpose — to look after the children of key workers and the vulnerable.
This typically has meant, on average, 2% of children in school in normal term time.
There has been a problem getting vulnerable children to attend schools in this period. All the available evidence is that the reluctance to send children to school is less to do with stigma and more to do with fear of the virus.
The definition of vulnerable used by the government was one where a social worker was involved supporting the family. It seems that many Local Authorities and schools have made their own wider definition of vulnerable. In the best cases teachers and school workers have been deciding which children from their cohort they feel would be safer in school.
At no point has the union opposed that. We have argued that workers know which children should be in. In many areas, schools, the Local Authority and the unions have been discussing ways of getting more vulnerable children in school.
Everyone involved in these discussions recognises that Government’s proposed “reopening” of schools makes it harder to reach those vulnerable children.
There has been an increase in the numbers of vulnerable children returning to across the country in recent weeks, due to the effort of school workers and local authorities, alongside the perception that it is safer. The situation with vulnerable children and the situation concerning the distribution of free school meal vouchers and how they work has been raised by the NEU both with the Department for Education nationally and with many local authorities.
We are nowhere near a point where schools can safely be reopened to more pupils than those groups entitled to attend now. When we reach that point there will need to be a gradual and phased return, focusing on the students who most need to be in school. Those decisions should be taken by school workers.
The slogan “no return until it is safe” is a popular and useful way to sum up a pro-worker and pro-pupil position. Safety in this context is, however, unavoidably relative. The current arrangements aren’t entirely safe. All the available evidence suggests that the threat posed by this virus will be with us for up to two years. It is not conceivable that schools will remain closed to the vast majority of pupils for that length of time, or that the school unions could impose that on government.
The left in the NEU have been agitating for a national ballot to strike against unsafe opening. This is correct and should be supported, but we should be under no illusion that this would sort the problem. Any ballot would not be able to deliver strike action until some considerable time after the 1 June “re-opening” date. In addition, there are many technical problems with ensuring a ballot such as this does not fall foul of the Tory anti-union laws. It will require a significant effort to win that ballot should it occur.
The leadership of the union has a policy of asking its members not to plan for the 1 June return. This is conceived of as a bargaining position to force the government’s hand. It is reasonable as part of a strategy.
However, the key to stop the unsafe opening is likely to be school groups using risk assessment and health and safety law to stop the opening. Where schools open unsafely, we should be notifying members of their right not to work in unsafe conditions under Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act. It is crucial that the national union makes it plain that if any member is docked pay or victimised for using this right, the union will organise strike action in their defence.
The NEU has grown massively in the Covid crisis. It recruited 10,000 members in the week after Johnson’s announcement alone. The membership surge seems to have been roughly equally divided between teachers and support staff which has big implications for making the NEU the union for all school workers that Workers’ Liberty has fought for.