Tuesday, 15 September 2020

After the Algorithm - the place of exams in a socialist curriculum

The enforced government U-turns over the grading of this summer’s school exams has shone a spotlight on the inbuilt class inequality inherent in education under capitalism.

This article has been written for the No.242 (October 2020) edition of 'Socialism Today'

The disputed algorithm at the heart of the grading controversy had inequality programmed into it. With school students unable to sit written examinations because of the Covid crisis, schools were asked to provide estimated grades for their GCSE and A-level students based on their knowledge of the students’ work. But the exam authorities decided that these predictions then had to be processed through an algorithm that prioritised the previous overall exam performance of the school, rather than that of an individual student. 

Both the exam authorities and ministers had been warned that the inevitable outcome of this approach would be for students in schools with a lower ranking in exam league tables – primarily those serving working-class communities – to be downgraded. On the other hand, students in schools that had historically good results – such as fee-paying independent schools – would be upgraded. 

Thanks to the youth who came out to protest against this unfair treatment the algorithm was withdrawn, and exams awarded based on the original school assessments. That victory will add to the confidence of a new generation that protest can bring results.

But why, historically, do schools in working-class areas generally perform less well in comparative exam league tables? Socialists would have no truck with any reactionary notion that this was down to the supposed ‘superior intelligence’ of the children of the wealthy. No, we look to the material conditions that explain those differential outcomes.

For a start, it is no surprise if students educated in schools with smaller class sizes and greater teaching resources do better in exams than those in an underfunded urban school struggling to meet a wide range of needs. 

A mass workers’ party in Britain would have to campaign to bring a genuinely comprehensive education system in to place. While most local authorities abolished selection at eleven many decades ago, parents know that, even in areas without formally selective grammar schools, some local schools are still seen as ‘better’ than others. Academies and church schools, sometimes operating covert methods of selection and ‘off-rolling’ of pupils that they want to remove, widen the divide. 

The educational divide has grown further under the impact of funding cuts, league tables of exam results and Ofsted gradings that all further disproportionally disadvantage schools meeting the greatest needs. Of course, the greatest divide of all exists between the state sector and the fee-paying independent sector, particularly schools like Eton and Harrow educating the children of capitalism’s elite.

Unchallenged, under British capitalism in decline, this class inequality will only get worse. Post-war capitalism, with a growing need for a skilled workforce, was prepared to accept more of its profits being spent on state-funded education. Now, it is increasingly seen as an unnecessary expense.

Socialists stand for all schools, including academies and those currently in the private sector, to be brought together under democratically elected local education boards so that a genuinely non-selective comprehensive system can be planned and agreed, with funding in place to meet all needs. 

However, inequality in society as a whole has the greatest influence on educational outcomes. Poor housing and nutrition, lack of access to computers and the internet, parents working long or unsocial hours, inability to afford private tuition and textbooks – these are just some of the factors that influence children’s lives. Even the best efforts of schools, teachers and parents are unable to counteract them sufficiently. 

A socialist society that used the world’s resources to provide a decent standard of living to all would start to address these inequalities and, by doing so, diminish educational inequality too. A fully funded genuinely comprehensive system with a broad and balanced curriculum for all would aim, as Karl Marx wrote in Capital, for every individual to become the “fully developed human being”.

But would there be a place for formal exams at all in a socialist education system? In 1918, after the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks abolished exams and decreed open access to all universities. Is this still applicable today? 

Abolishing exams would certainly improve the mental well-being of many young people. This is a particular issue in Britain where the emphasis on exam performance, including the results of formal SAT tests at eleven in England, has created an ‘exam-factory’ culture that distorts education and encourages ‘teaching to the test’. It has also contributed to a ‘fear of failure’ that has been identified as a significant reason as to why teenagers in the UK consistently record some of the lowest ‘happiness levels’ in Europe in international surveys.

In response to this year’s exam grading crisis, the National Education Union (NEU) is calling for an independent review of assessment methods and an end to “the current over-reliance on exams”. The NEU rightly points out that school assessed grades based on teacher assessment of students’ work, linked to a proper system of national moderation, can give at least as accurate a measurement as formal written exams. They certainly give some young people a better opportunity to show their knowledge and abilities than a stressful few hours sitting in an examination hall. Given the ongoing disruption to education from Covid, then it is also going to be an immediate necessity to avoid this year’s crisis repeating itself in 2021.

A socialist society would still need a means to assess and verify the technical and social skills of individuals performing particular tasks in society. But, even if based on teacher assessment, exams under capitalism remain essentially a method of rationing progress, of sifting young people into those who can attend university, those who may get employment – and those who will probably get nothing at all. 

The university system itself is further polarised between Oxford and Cambridge, the rest of the Russell Group universities, and down through the perceived order of merit to the colleges at the bottom of the pecking order. This was, after all, why A-level downgrading was such a threat for some students who protested to make sure they could still get a place at the higher ranked university that they were hoping to attend. This polarisation, made worse by the marketisation of university places, has to be challenged. All students have the right to a high quality education, not just a few. 

A socialist education system must ensure that all young people have a choice – as the Young Socialists’ Charter demands today – of a university place, training or employment. That choice should be a genuine one, based on the wishes of the young person, not through rationing imposed through exam scores. Education, and society as a whole, should also be organised in a way that breaks down the division between ‘mental and manual labour’ that exists under capitalism so that everyone can develop a full range of skills and knowledge.

Of course, this presupposes a society where sufficient resources are made available to provide that genuine equality of opportunity where youth can choose the life options they feel best suited for, rather than leaving it to exams to artificially ration what is on offer.

Where those resources did not exist in a poorly developed Russia, ravaged further by civil war, the Bolsheviks were never able to develop their policy in practice. The abolition of exams, alongside other far-sighted educational reforms, soon fell victim to the Stalinist counter-revolution which reverted to the former stratified curriculum. 

But those Bolshevik reforms provide, to paraphrase Marx, a ‘germ of the education of the future’ that socialist educators should build on today.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

A Safe Return to Schools? What does the Public Health England survey really show?

With the new term rapidly approaching in England, a phoney debate is being created suggesting that school safety campaigners don’t recognise the importance of children being in school. That’s not a debate. The real issue, however, is how that can be done safely.

Parents and school staff are being bombarded with an official narrative that schools will be safe to open with all children present in September. However, those claims are being based on questionable evidence.

Having read the actual content of the latest much-publicised schools survey from Public Health England I would go further and suggest that their claims are actually contradicted by their own facts. 

In my view, the PHE Report actually shows that:
  • Any conclusions reached from the PHE survey can only be based on the environment in school settings at that time – i.e. small class and bubble sizes and with most pupils still learning from home.
  • The survey only concludes that school transmission risks can be low when class sizes and local infection rates are low too. The data presented suggests that there could be significantly higher numbers of outbreaks if schools reopen without these conditions being in place.
  • The Report’s authors make clear its findings should not be applied to secondary schools and accepts that the risk of transmission is higher amongst older children.
  • In the thirty identified outbreaks, viral transmission IS clearly recorded as taking place within these (largely Primary and Early Years) educational settings.
  • While the survey suggests transmission from staff is more likely than transmission from children, in over a quarter of outbreaks (8/30), children are identified as being the source of the infection within the school.
  • The survey results confirm parent and staff concerns that staff can transmit the virus to pupils - and then back to their families – but also shows that staff can also be infected, even by young children, too.
  • The Report concludes that “most children were asymptomatic and only identified as part of contact tracing after their parent developed COVID-19, highlighting the importance of access to rapid testing, reporting and contact tracing for individuals to protect the wider community”.
  • The Report notes that 90% of schools closed the entire bubble when there was a single case reported and that 43% closed the entire school when there was an outbreak of more than one confirmed case.

Public Health England’s Report – a survey from educational settings in June & July 2020

It’s worth pointing out that the PHE Report, SARS-CoV-2 infection and transmission in educational settings: cross-sectional analysis of clusters and outbreaks in England, does not include medical research about the mechanisms of viral transmission. It is simply a survey of the infections and outbreaks reported in school settings in England in June and July 2020.

However, as the full Report notes, school settings were operating far from normally at that time: “Re-opening of educational settings was partial (nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6 in primary schools, and years 10 and 12 in secondary schools), not mandatory and the decision to re-open schools was met with mixed responses from educational staff and parents. Consequently, not all schools re-opened and not all parents sent eligible children to school during the remainder of summer term (June to mid-July 2020)

The Report itself acknowledges “important limitations when considering the generalisability of our findings. Educational settings opened after national lockdown when SARS-CoV-2 incidence was low and only in regions with low community transmission. Settings that opened had stringent social distancing and infection control measures in please and, in addition to school attendance not being mandatory, there were strict protocols for class and bubble sizes, which may not be achievable when schools opening fully in the next academic year (and indeed, updated schools guidance now recognises that bubble size may need to be increased from September to ensure that a full range of activities is feasible). Only 1.6 million of the 8.9 million students nationally attended any educational setting during the summer mini-term”.
  • Any conclusions reached from the PHE survey can only be based on the environment in school settings at that time – i.e. small class and bubble sizes and with most pupils still learning from home.
Are the chances of transmission in primary schools low? Our survey says: That depends! … on keeping class sizes and ‘bubbles’ small and taking particular care where local infection rates are high 

The PHE survey is being reported as evidence that the risk of viral transmission is low – as only thirty outbreaks were recorded in June and July 2020. However, as stated above, that was based on the environment in school settings at that time – i.e. small class and bubble sizes and with most pupils still learning from home. That’s exactly what ISN’T being planned for September.

The risks of transmission, as has been indicated by reports of outbreaks in schools globally, will inevitably increase if classes reopen at their full size, secondary schools operate bubble sizes of whole year groups and all pupils are on the school site at once – as the DfE intends to be the case as things stand.

This will be true in all schools but particularly the case in areas where there are higher infection rates. As the Report uncontroversially notes “we found a strong correlation between community SARS-CoV-2 incidence and COVID-19 outbreaks in educational settings. This is not surprising since increased community transmission provides more opportunities for virus introduction into educational settings”.

The data provided in the Report’s additional tables illustrates that correlation – but raises an obvious concern as to what the rate of outbreak might be in areas where the case incidence is higher (and there are many such towns and cities already) and without the ability to socially distance through smaller classes:



  • The survey only concludes that school transmission risks can be low when class sizes and local infection rates are low too. The data presented suggests that there could be significantly higher numbers of outbreaks if schools reopen without these conditions being in place.

What about secondary schools where medical research suggests that students may transmit the virus similarly to adults? Our survey says: Nothing, most secondary schools were only open to a few students

The Report is straightforwardly honest about drawing conclusions from its data about secondary schools: “Very few secondary schools opened (and those that did, did so with small class sizes) during the summer mini-term and our results, therefore, are not likely to be generalisable to secondary schools, especially since the risk of infection, disease and transmission is likely to be higher in older than younger children”.

  • The Report’s authors make clear its findings should not be applied to secondary schools and accepts that the risk of transmission is higher amongst older children.

Educational settings don’t spread the virus? Our survey says: Yes, they do! 

The survey notes that conclusions about transmission in settings where there were just single confirmed cases cannot be made because “the source of infection was not systematically collected”. But it confirms that there were thirty ‘outbreaks’ (defined as “2 or more epidemiologically linked cases, where sequential cases were diagnosed within a 14-day period”).

18 of these 30 recorded outbreaks were in Primary Schools, 7 in Early Years and 3 in SEND schools. Just 2 were recorded in secondary schools but, as stated above, most secondary classes were not in school at this time.

· In the thirty identified outbreaks, viral transmission IS clearly recorded as taking place within these (largely Primary and Early Years) educational settings.

Children don’t transmit the virus? Our survey says: Yes, they do! 

As is to be expected given global research about transmission from the youngest children, the survey found that “staff had higher rates of individual SARS-CoV-2 infection and outbreaks than students, albeit with wide confidence intervals”. However, politicians and journalists have chosen to focus on just one particular sentence in the Report that suggested that “staff members need to be more vigilant for exposure outside the school setting to protect themselves, their families and the educational setting”.

Many staff would, of course, contend that they are already being highly vigilant but that they cannot be held to blame for the failure by Government to reduce the risks of infection, both inside and outside schools. However, the Report clearly records that it isn’t only adults that can transmit the virus in school settings.

The survey states that “the probable transmission direction for the 30 confirmed outbreaks was: staff-to-staff (n=15), staff-to-student (n=7), student-to-staff (n=6) and student-to-student (n=2)”.

  • While the survey suggests transmission from staff is more likely than transmission from children, in over a quarter of outbreaks (8/30), children are identified as being the source of the infection within the school.

Staff can only transmit the virus to other staff? Our survey says: No, that's not the case! 

Again, the Report in full records that “of the 30 student cases involved in an outbreak, the potential source of infection in 27 children included a household contact (n=8), a school staff member (n=17) and another student (n=2).”

And, “of 91 staff members involved in an outbreak, where a potential source of infection could be identified, 9 acquired the infection from a household contact and were the likely index case in the outbreak and 52 likely acquired the infection in the educational setting from another staff member (n=46) or another child (n=6).

  • The survey results confirm parent and staff concerns that staff can transmit the virus to pupils - and then back to their families – but also shows that staff can also be infected, even by young children, too.

Did testing and tracing help identify infectious children? Our survey says: Yes.

Schools are being instructed to return to full opening while there are still considerable questions over the reliability off the test-and-trace systems in place, let alone making provision for the regular onsite testing of staff, so as to screen them for possible infection.

Confirming the evidence of child transmission, the report states that “Seven primary school outbreaks involved staff and students. In this small sample of outbreaks the student was most likely the index case in 6 outbreaks” but also adds that “In 5 outbreaks, the child (index case) was identified through ‘test and trace’; i.e. testing of the whole household when parents (healthcare workers in 3 cases) had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Seven staff members in contact with the index cases (3 tested because they became symptomatic) subsequently tested positive for SARS-CoV-2”.

  • The Report concludes that “most children were asymptomatic and only identified as part of contact tracing after their parent developed COVID-19, highlighting the importance of access to rapid testing, reporting and contact tracing for individuals to protect the wider community”.

Did schools close whole bubbles if there was just one case? - Our survey says: Yes, most have done so, some have closed whole schools. 

The Report notes that where there were only single confirmed cases, “Among 43/48 (90%) cases with available information, the case and contact bubble were excluded from 39 educational settings while four educational settings decided to close entirely because of a perceived risk of onward transmission, although this was contrary to national recommendations. For the remaining five cases (3 staff, 2 children) only the confirmed cases were isolated because they had remained outside the educational setting throughout their infectious period ”. 

In the 30 schools with outbreaks of more than one confirmed case “affected contact bubbles were excluded from school in all 30 outbreaks and 13 also decided to close either on an interim basis (to allow for deep cleaning or for exclusion periods to elapse) or for the rest of the term”.

  • The Report notes that 90% of schools closed the entire bubble when there was a single case reported and that 43% closed the entire school when there was an outbreak of more than one confirmed case.
Martin Powell-Davies, August 25 2020

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Tories forced into Exam grade U-turn - LBC debate

After the Tories were forced by mounting youth protests into a U-turn over exam grading, I was invited to debate alongside Katharine Birbalsingh on LBC radio this morning. 

Here's what I had to say: 

 

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

From first wave to second? Boris Johnson’s covid failures

Back in March, when the spread of the coronavirus pandemic was accelerating globally, the Socialist newspaper explained that “a newly-spreading virus is a danger that can befall any society. The question facing the world today, however, is what kind of society can best meet such a challenge.”

Five months on, just as we warned, the inability of global capitalism to respond to such a crisis has been sharply exposed. Its failure to protect both lives and living standards will have a lasting effect on workers’ consciousness and influence the struggles that are to come.

According to official statistics, over 700,000 people have died worldwide as a result of Covid-19, although the real figure could be much higher. Workers’ trust in the ability of their governments to even count death tolls accurately has been another casualty in the crisis.

Globally, the pandemic is still accelerating. It is now taking a heavy toll in the neocolonial world, where capitalism’s ongoing failure to provide health facilities, housing, food, and incomes now leaves millions highly vulnerable to the virus.

But capitalism’s failures are also graphically exposed by the fact that the three countries with the highest official death totals at the end of July – the US, Brazil, and the UK – should all have had the economic resources to deal with the crisis. Instead, many thousands have died needlessly thanks to the inept leadership provided by the right-wing Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson.

Short-sighted

Instead of following the advice of medical experts to urgently introduce widespread testing and contact tracing alongside measures to prevent transmission, these representatives of the most short-sighted capitalists resisted taking steps that might threaten profit-making.

In doing so, they have ended up making matters worse even for their own wealthy backers. Their delay has only worsened the damage that has been done to the already-vulnerable global economy.

While countries like China that still retain elements of state ownership were better able to direct resources in a planned manner, a privatised economy like Britain’s was unable to respond quickly enough.

It immediately became clear that there was a critical shortage of PPE for health and care workers. But Public Health England’s solution to the problem was to fit its advice to the availability of equipment, revising its guidance downwards, advising that less-stringent protection was required.

Years of health cuts had left the NHS without the capacity to carry out mass testing. At first, the Tories ignored this vital need.

A catastrophic consequence was the discharge of thousands of elderly patients into care homes without any prior testing for Covid-19. Over 19,000 Covid-19 related deaths have since been registered for care home residents in England alone.

Ministers then decided to open their coffers – but not to fund NHS laboratories. No; instead contracts were awarded to private companies like AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, even though both had no proven track record in diagnostic testing.

Instead of a medical professional, the Tories decided to put one of their own – the Conservative peer and previous CEO of TalkTalk, Dido Harding – in charge of the test-and-trace programme. As a board member of the Jockey Club that had been so keen on the Cheltenham Festival going ahead at the end of March, she was clearly well-qualified in viral spread!

But under Harding’s ‘leadership’, the promised NHS contact-tracing phone app has had to be scrapped. There is still no date for an alternative.

Now the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health have warned that the current NHS testing and tracing programme is too ineffective to prevent a second wave if schools reopen full-time in September. The study estimates that too few infectious individuals are being detected by testing and too few of their contacts are then being traced and isolated.

Moreover, the government had pledged to test all care home residents and staff by July – now that has been postponed to September. Yet another failure to deliver.

As well as the elderly and more clinically vulnerable, those working on throughout ‘lockdown’ without sufficient protection have been left at risk. Official figures for England and Wales listing the occupations where most deaths have occurred include not only nurses and care workers, but also security guards, factory and construction workers, taxi and bus drivers, chefs, and sales assistants.

Shielding is now ending – at the worst possible time. As a possible second wave gathers, there must be no compulsion to return to the workplace, or ending of support, for those most at risk.

The recent outbreaks – first in Leicester and Luton, then much of the northwest of England – expose how the lack of a working test-and-trace system is costing further lives. In response, the British Medical Journal has demanded testing and tracing be integrated back into NHS and local authority control.

Private v planned

In short, privatisation is costing lives. Tackling the virus requires democratic control and planning – and hence public ownership.

If that’s true on a local scale, it’s even more the case on a global scale – particularly in the urgent work needed to try to develop vaccines against Covid-19. Under capitalism, the profit to be made from developing a viable vaccine before your competitors prevent the global sharing of research that would guarantee its quickest development.

In the absence of a vaccine, the pandemic remains an ongoing threat. But the likes of Johnson hoped they could get away with opening up the economy without a serious strategy to control the virus.

More serious establishment scientists, like those in ‘Independent Sage’ that split from the official government Sage group in May, warned that what they describe as a “fingers crossed through reopening” strategy was unlikely to be good enough.

The controversy over quarantining holidaymakers returning from Spain revealed the growing concern that, as lockdown measures ease, cases would again start to rise. That’s certainly the case in countries like Israel, Japan, and Australia. Now case numbers seem to be rising in Britain too.

Workers and their trade unions have to sound the alarm – and refuse to buckle under the pressure from big business to rush into an unsafe opening of workplaces, shops, and schools. Instead of short-sighted capitalist profiteering, socialists demand a serious strategy to eliminate the virus. That needs to include:

  • A fully resourced, community-based testing and tracing system – run through the public sector, not private profiteers
  • Protection, support and full income for all those at greatest risk, needing to isolate, or hit by the economic crisis
  • Democratic trade union and workers’ control over workplace safety
This article was written for the Socialist newspaper and also posted on the website of the CWI on: https://www.socialistworld.net/2020/08/05/from-first-wave-to-second-boris-johnsons-covid-failures/?

Saturday, 1 August 2020

The scientific evidence mounts: children DO transmit Covid-19

As the school year came to an end, official opinion was increasingly of the view that schools would be able to open fully again in September with only very limited safety measures in place. We were told that case numbers would continue to fall over the holidays and that, in any case, it seemed likely that schools and schoolchildren didn’t play much of a role in virus transmission. Those of us who warned this might be mistaken would have loved to have been proved wrong. Unfortunately, as each day passes, it seems official opinion has, sadly, been over-optimistic.

The controversy over quarantine on returning from European holidays has revealed the concern that remains across Europe about infection rates increasing once lockdown measures are relaxed. That’s also a pattern that’s revealing itself globally, notably in Israel, Australia and Japan. There are now also the first signs that case numbers are starting to rise again in the UK too.


Yet, when SAGE, the official scientific advisory group to the UK Government, released its latest analysis about reopening schools on 24 July, in their view, “given the low risk of transmission between children”, there was no need to recommend facemask use and no suggestion that the previous limits on class sizes, to enable greater physical distancing, needed to be maintained.

A closer look at SAGE’s appendices, however, shows only a limited research basis on which to draw such a significant conclusion. They pointed to a Dutch contact tracing analysis that suggested most adults were infected by other adults, not children. However, other Dutch epidemiologists had already criticised their methodology. SAGE also pointed to a study of a school in a Paris suburb that a found no evidence of onward transmission from children. However, they failed to mention another study in the same area that concluded that high school children COULD transmit the virus.

Yet one of the contact tracing studies cited in ‘Annex A’  – but not referred to in SAGE’s full Report – should have already started to set doubts in SAGE’s minds (if, of course, these were objective minds and not ones trying to find evidence to back up the Government’s economic imperative to make sure schools were fully open to provide full-time child-care). This is an Israeli study from June 2020 taken across over 600 households that showed that, yes, children had a lower relative infectivity than adults but not at any significantly lower level – perhaps 85%.

In the last few weeks, the global research basis has been growing – and the evidence that children, and schools, contribute to viral transmission is growing rapidly. For example:

  • A study from South Korea, shows household transmission was highest of all age groups for those aged 10-19
  • Research from Germany continues to show that there is little difference in “viral load” between children and adults.
  • In Israel, where infection rates have been rising sharply since lockdown measures were relaxed, a report on a recent outbreak shows widespread transmission took place within the school. The highest infection rates were amongst 13-15 year old students.
  • In Victoria, Australia, where infection rates are also now rising, an outbreak in a school was linked to substantial transmission amongst senior students after they returned to face-to-face learning
  • Another contact tracing study from Trento, Italy, has reported transmission from children to adults with children in the 0-14 age group showing the greatest infectivity.
  • A study from the United States has indicated a correlation between how quickly different states closed their schools and the rate at which mortality rates then fell
  • A report on a recent outbreak at a children’s camp in Georgia, USA, where there appears to have been widespread transmission amongst attendees. Of those tested, 51 out of 100 6-10 year olds tested positive and 180 of the 409 11-17 year olds (see table below).
  • A study from Chicago, USA finding that children younger than 5 with mild to moderate COVID-19 have higher amounts of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA in their nasopharynx than older children and adults


Of course, the science is still developing and research and reports are open to debate and review. But, the weight of evidence is now mounting up. Given the health risks of infection, surely advice should at least be based on the “precautionary principle” that minimises risks as much as possible? That’s exactly the approach recommended by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in its advice on reopening schools in the US.

The advice from Harvard is in sharp contrast to the inadequate guidance issued by the DfE in the UK. They conclude that “It is reasonable and prudent to assume that COVID-19 transmission may occur between children and from children to adults in reopened US schools”. They recommend that students wear face masks and that staff wear masks for close work and face shields when at front of class. They also  make other recommendations that echo those of the NEU’s “5 tests” including the reduction of class sizes in order to maintain physical distancing, stressing the importance of diagnostic viral testing and official advice on closure, cleaning and contact tracing if there is a case in a school.

The Harvard advice also calls for authorities to “provide necessary supplies and support systems to continue remote education for students staying home” and to “advocate for high-risk students and staff to have access to effective remote learning or work”.

Of course the situation in the UK is not exactly identical to the US, but the risks from the virus are the same across the globe.

What all of this research confirms is that the DfE guidance – recommending that schools open with full classes, no effective physical distancing and no PPE – is looking increasingly reckless. Trade unions and parents must urgently demand that advice is withdrawn and replaced with a strategy that recognises – and properly mitigates against –  the real risks that schools could spread infection within school communities.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Inadequate NEU Guidance on September Opening abandons the '5 tests'

For the DfE to produce unsafe guidance on behalf of a Government determined to have all schools fully opened in September, regardless of the scientific evidence or the risk to public health, should come as no surprise. But for the NEU to send out, belatedly, guidance that abandons its previous ‘5 tests’ - and instead restricts itself to the parameters of that DfE guidance - is a major disappointment. It is a mistake that needs to be urgently corrected.

The NEU’s ‘5 tests’ have not been met = there should be no full return at the start of next term

Further wider opening in September should begin only with a phased introduction of more students. Some ‘blended learning’ - both in school and remotely from home – will have to continue for some time yet.

The pressure on union leaders to buckle under the pressure from the media - and politicians of both main parties - to accept full opening in September is enormous. However, unions need to stand firm and protect their members.

The outbreak in Leicester has confirmed, if further proof were needed, that the NEU’s ‘5 tests’ have not been met; that schools and young people contribute to the transmission of the virus; that testing, tracing and data sharing systems remain shambolic; and that infection rates are at risk of rising upwards again.

Just some of the recent conclusions from 'Independent SAGE'

With the 5 tests not met, unions should be insisting that full opening is unsafe at the start of September. Instead, a precautionary approach should be taken, monitoring the risk of increased infection rates from both wider schools opening and the ending of lockdown measures more generally.

Such an assessment of risk would have to conclude that any further wider opening should only be based on a phased introduction of more students, with some ‘blended learning’ – both in school and remotely from home - having to continue for some time yet.

As the NEU’s ‘10-point Education Recovery plan’ states, this must be resourced by Government and with low-income households given the resources they need to learn at home, including access to books, laptops and internet access. Schools will also need the funding to employ additional staff to provide that learning with safe reduced class sizes, directly employing supply staff to assist. Schools should also operate a ‘recovery curriculum’ focusing on well-being.

However, and I believe wrongly, the latest joint union guidance sent out by the NEU fails to propose either phased opening or reduced class sizes. [It only suggests that schools should have “an alternative plan in case, for any reason such as a renewed local lockdown, full opening cannot take place at the beginning of September”].  The union advice should call for a phased opening more generally – and unions must also oppose the fining of parents who do not believe that schools are yet safe enough for their children to attend.

PPE at Work Regulations 1992: ‘employers shall ensure suitable PPE is provided … ’

Under the law, all staff should be provided with face masks. If it is felt that teaching and learning is too difficult in those circumstances, then other means to reduce risk that are at least as effective must be adopted.

The joint union guidance has been issued too late in the term to give reps and local officers time to adequately negotiate with employers. It is also very long – yet fails to focus on key aspects of health and safety legislation, particularly Regulation 4 of the PPE at Work Regulations 1992 [This key legislation is linked to in section 6 of the joint guidance on PPE but its contents are not spelt out for reps’ attention.]

These regulations state clearly that “every employer shall ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to his employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective”.

School staff are only too aware of the contradiction between the advice being issued about the importance of wearing face masks to reduce droplet and aerosol transmission in indoor spaces like shops, especially where there is limited social distancing – and the apparently magical lack of the same precautions being necessary in classrooms!

The latest joint union guidance certainly mentions PPE, but only in particular circumstances: when supervising a child with symptoms; one that may spit or cough; for specific staff like Early Years and SEND settings;  for staff previously deemed to be extremely clinically vulnerable, clinically vulnerable (including pregnant women) or otherwise at higher risk, or who have vulnerable family members, who are returning to work in school.

These are certainly all situations where PPE should be provided. However, the protection will only be of limited value to staff at risk if they are the only staff wearing PPE. Others around them, which could include an asymptomatic child or adult breathing out droplets, really need to be wearing a mask too.

If, and scientific opinion seems to be hardening on this, face masks reduce the risks of viral transmission indoors, then, under the Regulations – and they state ‘SHALL’, not ‘should’ – staff should ALL be provided with masks. Students really need to be as well. However, if it is felt that teaching and learning is too difficult in those circumstances, then the law says other means to reduce risk that are at least as effective must be adopted.

PPE at Work Regulations 1992: “… or adequately controlled by other means”

Until the ‘5 tests’ are met, risks should be controlled by maintaining the same maximum group size of 15 as now

If PPE isn’t going to be provided to all – or thought to be a workable solution in a school environment - then what alternative means are schools going to follow that are at least as equally effective?

The NEU’s previous “Test 2” rightly called for “appropriate physical distancing and levels of social mixing in schools, as well as for appropriate PPE … locally negotiated at school-by-school and local authority level”.

With infection rates still high enough to cause concern, negotiated safe physical distancing and small fixed ‘bubbles’ of pupils to limit social mixing could provide that alternative - alongside reliable testing and protection for those at risk. But, from September, none of these will be in place under the new DfE guidance. The joint union guidance should be sharply exposing that failure – but it isn’t! That has to be corrected.

Up to now, DfE guidance had recommended social distancing and small ‘bubbles’ to minimise the risk of onward transmission, with group sizes not exceeding fifteen. Under the new guidance for September, the DfE are proposing full class sizes and ‘bubbles’ that are as large as a whole secondary school year group – in other words, hundreds of students mixing together. (Of course, friends meeting outside school, contacts on transport to school and at the school gates, and having siblings in different years, are further risks too).

Both the scientific advice – and some simple maths – shows that expanding ‘bubbles’ and class sizes in this way makes physical distancing within the confines of a classroom impossible and greatly increases the chance of an infected individual spreading transmission across the whole ‘bubble’.

The latest joint advice does not sufficiently challenge this risk. It suggests bubbles are kept ‘as small as possible’ – but proposes a maximum of one class in primary and KS3, and half a year group in KS4. But that is still agreeing that schools should double existing ‘bubble’ sizes – much more than that with KS4.

There is no mention of maximum class sizes in the joint union guidance – despite previous union guidance acknowledging that even class sizes of 15 did not really allow a physical distance of 2m between tables in most classrooms.

Until staff can be secure in the knowledge that infection rates are falling and test and trace procedures are in place to keep them that way – as set out in the NEU’s ‘5 tests’ - surely risks should be controlled by maintaining the same maximum group size of 15 as now? As stated above, that would mean schools would need to introduce more students only on a phased basis at first, maintaining ‘blended learning’ to also support teaching and learning.

What about the ‘5 Tests’ and functioning ‘Find, Test, Trace, Isolate, Support’?

The abandonment of the original NEU ‘5 tests’ in this new joint guidance must be reversed – and full support given to members jointly refusing to return to a workplace they believe poses a serious and imminent danger.

The NEU paid a lot of attention to the warnings and evidence being provided by Independent SAGE when it was recommending a wider opening of schools be delayed from 1 June. Unfortunately, the latest joint guidance suggests union officials are no longer giving that scientific advice the attention it deserves.

Independent SAGE have since produced a series of detailed reports criticising the ongoing failure in the privatised testing and tracing regime, the lack of integration and data sharing with local NHS services – so badly exposed in Leicester – and the withdrawal of support for those who have been shielding.

A serious weakness with the latest joint union guidance is that it fails to reflect that scientific concern and also no longer maintains the demands originally set out in the NEU's ‘5 tests’.

It repeats the DfE’s weak call for staff and students who have been in contact with a pupil showing symptoms “to be reminded to wash or sanitise their hands”. But where is the call for immediate testing of at least those contacts, if not the whole school – in line with the NEU “Test 4” that called for “protocols to be put in place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs”?

It asks reps to make sure schools are engaging with NHS Test & Trace process but says nothing about the fact that those processes are failing to function properly – so also failing to meet the NEU’s original “Test 1” that demanded these systems were all working reliably and extensively.

It asks if the school “will follow DFE advice on sending home anyone who have been in close contact with confirmed cases” but does not warn reps anything about the warnings from Independent SAGE about the risks arising in the mean time because of the length of time that test results are taking to be returned.

What has happened to NEU “Test 3” that would give staff, particularly those at risk, the reassurance that some other employers are giving staff returning from lockdown of “comprehensive access to regular testing”? Unions need to be loudly making that demand for regular workplace testing on behalf of their members in schools.

The new joint guidance asks vaguely about control measures to contain any outbreak but fails to insist that schools should be closed if an outbreak occurs. Unions should instead be  challenging the DfE guidance for full opening that advises that “whole school closure based on cases within the school will not generally be necessary” and that there would need to be at least "two or more confirmed cases within 14 days" for them to even consider it a possible outbreak.

It asks for schools to carry out individual risk assessments for staff who are clinically extremely vulnerable, clinically vulnerable or at increased risk, or who live with them, but no longer insists on the previous NEU ‘Test 5” that “vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible.”

Without making it clear, the new joint guidance abandons the previous ‘5 tests’ set by the Union, even though none of them have been met. That must be challenged by NEU members and the previous position reinstated – along with full support to members jointly refusing to return to a workplace if they reasonably believe that it poses a serious and imminent danger.