Boris Johnson’s announcement that schools will close until February half term is yet another U-turn from this shambolic Tory government — one which has been forced by the huge pressure from below by education workers.
Socialist Alternative members (ISA in England, Wales & Scotland) in the National Education Union, Unite and UNISON
The Tories’ plan to reopen schools was met with fierce opposition from scientists, politicians from all parties, and most importantly from the trade unions. After almost a year of criminal mismanagement of the pandemic by Johnson, along with a worrying new strain of coronavirus which is seemingly spreading very quickly, many people have completely lost trust in this incompetent government. A joint statement from six unions representing education workers called for an immediate move to remote learning and schools to be closed except for vulnerable and key worker children.
Drastic action was necessary as the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly reaching a very serious situation. Schools are undeniably playing a key role in the spread of the virus; the ONS reported on December 24th that “Secondary school-age children continue to have the highest percentage testing positive.” Even the Government’s SAGE advisors concluded that the “evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open, particularly in children of secondary school age, multiple data sources show a reduction in transmission in children following schools closing for half term, and transmission rates increasing again following the post-half term return to school.”
When the Tories insisted on schools opening in any case, without the necessary safety precautions being put in place, education workers voiced their anger, and pushed their unions to take decisive action for safety at school and to fight the spread of the virus. An unprecedented 400,000 people attended, watched and engaged with the National Education Union’s online meeting earlier this week.
The NEU, along with UNISON, issued guidance to all members in schools that they should not go into the workplace for at least the first two weeks of term (apart from providing care and education to vulnerable children and the children of key workers), and provided a model letter for members to send to their Heads explaining this. This is legally protected under section 44 of the employment rights act, which enshrines the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. This was clearly engaged with by many union members as shown by the huge meeting and the number of schools where these letters were sent. It was this show of strength which forced the hand of the government, and many local authorities and head teachers, to accept that schools should remain closed.
This was despite the disgraceful stance of the NASUWT and GMB union leaderships, who produced guidance that was tantamount to scabbing by saying that using Section 44 to refuse to attend an unsafe workplace is a “breach of contract”. Many members of these unions ignored their leadership, with some leaving in protest and joining the NEU or UNISON.
Since January 1st over 16,000 education workers have joined the NEU, attending massive meetings throughout the UK and sharing experiences about the actions they have taken at their school. Public meetings with parents, healthcare workers, education workers and left-wing Labour MPs were also organised and attended by thousands of people. When trade union leaderships offer a path of action, members engage and take action themselves — and show that this government can be defeated!
Workers’ and parents control needed for safety
However, it is not enough to just close schools. Firstly, many working class families will be panicking about how they will deal with potentially weeks of having their children at home. Any parent who isn’t able to work because they need to provide childcare should receive 100% of their wages. More than this, there needs to be resources made available for families who are struggling with the extra costs of children learning from home — free school meals vouchers, laptops, the cost of internet, paper and ink, the extra costs in energy bills and so on.
This worry is not just because of school closures, though. The cost of childcare is astronomical, and many families cannot afford it. There should be the immediate introduction of free, universal childcare to solve this problem. Local authorities should act immediately to introduce this.
Johnson has said that exams “won’t go forward as normal” but all exams must be cancelled immediately. It is not feasible that students, or teachers, will be ready for exams, particularly those due to take place in January! There shouldn’t be a choice between being safe and getting qualifications. But this also raises a question around the type of education system that we have: schools should not be exam factories!
During the time that schools are closed, the necessary safety measures should be put in place — otherwise when schools reopen none of the problems would have been solved. Proper social distancing needs to be possible, including if necessary ‘overflow’ schools to keep class sizes small. The use of bubbles needs to be kept, even if lateral flow tests are rolled out. PPE needs to be provided and clinically vulnerable members of staff need to be able to work from home. When schools do reopen, there could be a phased return. These types of ‘red lines’ should be developed democratically by workers, unions and parents in order to ensure that schools are reopened safely. We have no trust in the Tory government — it should be workers and parents who decide when it is safe!
Support staff in schools also need to be included in these discussions, plans and decisions. The safety of all workers is paramount — even those who cannot ‘work from home’. Also, all education workers should be part of the initial roll-out of the vaccine, along with other front-line workers.
Following these closures, there will still be a fight on our hands. We need a strategy to fight this Tory government, and that has to include a ballot for industrial action over dangerous working conditions. It should also include an independent trade union inquiry into the role of schools in the spread of coronavirus, and the government’s mishandling of the pandemic in general, to expose how their mistakes have led to the suffering of millions.
The revolt by education workers will serve as a beacon of hope to workers in other sectors who are facing uncertainty or unsafe working conditions. The fight has not been won yet, but this U-turn by the government after the trade union movement lifted its little finger should serve as a lesson to the movement as a whole: if you fight, you can win!
It was the rank and file of the National Education Union, followed by UNISON, who in their hundreds of thousands made their voices heard and forced the leadership to take a stand. This is also an important lesson for members of other unions — it is you who have the power. There is generally a feeling of demoralisation felt by many, starting the year going into another lockdown and with a new strain of coronavirus, but this provides a good example of the sort of fightback that is necessary.
Socialist Alternative members working in education have written the following programme for safety in schools:
- Keep schools closed until it’s safe for staff, children and families. Vulnerable and key worker children to be given provision when required.
- All parents who are required to stay at home to look after their children should receive 100% pay. Resources should be made available to cover extra costs.
- Children on free school meals should be given food parcels.
- Cases should be consistently and decisively falling before a full re-opening.
- Democratic workers’, parents and community control over safety measures in schools and plans for reopening.
- Class sizes reduced to a maximum of 15 — use emergency schools in community centres and empty office buildings to enable social distancing.
- Rotas to be introduced to ensure smaller class sizes.
- Effective remote learning introduced with no compulsion on parents — all children to be given laptops and internet access.
- Staff to be trained in delivering remote learning.
- Cancel all exams, replacing them with coursework and moderated teacher assessment.
- Vaccinate education workers.
- Nationalise the big pharmaceutical companies and run them under democratic workers’ control and management to allow a massive expansion of vaccination provision to ensure all staff are offered the vaccine as an essential step towards safety.
- Regular effective testing for children and staff, provided by healthcare professionals.
- Unite education workers across unions to take industrial action against unsafe conditions.