Sunday, 2 January 2022

NEU Member Survey - say yes to action on pay

WORKLOAD AND INFLATION GOES UP, INCOMES FALL

This term promises to start just as last term finished. School staff will be under intolerable pressure from incessant workload and Covid absences. Yet, in return for all our efforts, our real incomes are sharply falling as the cost of living rises. Fuel prices are set to rise further, as are the costs of mortgage payments.

Many support staff and supply colleagues are already struggling. The hourly rate of a newly qualified teacher working 50-60 hours a week, but being paid less than £2,200 a month, is at minimum wage levels.

Years of below inflation pay awards show how little value is being placed on both educators and education by this Government. It’s time to demand change. WE DESERVE BETTER. EDUCATION DESERVES BETTER. 

VOTE YES FOR ACTION IN THE NEU SURVEY

Between now and July, the School Teachers’ Review Body will be deliberating over what pay increase they will recommend teachers get in September 2022. Once again, this Government will be telling them to keep any increase to a minimum. They certainly won’t be looking to match an inflation rate that could soon be as high as 6%. In short, we are set for another pay cut – unless we take action to win our pay demands.

The NEU Executive wants to know how strongly you feel about how badly educators are being treated. That’s why a survey is being sent out to the email address on your union record from 14 January. It’s vital that you, and as many of your colleagues as possible, return the survey and SAY YES TO ACTION ON PAY.

Download the flyer drafted by Socialist Party in Education for use by NEU Officers and Reps as a pdf, jpg or an editable word document from this folder

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Agency Workers Regulations - Myth Busters

MYTH BUSTERS - What to say when you’re told you haven’t got a case … when you have!

Download these posts as A4 leaflets:
Myth Buster 1, and
Myth Buster 2:

MYTH ONE:

“Schools can pay agency teachers what they like because ‘pay portability’ no longer applies”

When an agency teacher starts to raise their rights to be paid ‘to scale’ after 12 weeks, under the Agency  Workers Regulations (AWR), they may well be told that they definitely haven’t got a case because ‘pay portability’ no longer   applies. That phrase refers to legislation that was removed from the School Teachers’ Pay & Conditions Document (STPCD) in 2013.

That worsening of the STPCD means that permanent teachers starting work at a new school are no longer automatically entitled to be paid at least at the same salary point that they were on in their previous job. Academies have always been allowed to operate outside the STPCD in any case. 

But none of this means that schools can automatically ignore the AWR and pay their agency teachers what they like after 12 weeks. 

What does official guidance say?

The main AWR guidance for hirers of agency workers is issued by the ‘BEIS’ Government Department. It says:

“Deciding what “equal treatment” means will usually be a matter of common sense – the requirement is simply to treat the worker as if he or she had been recruited directly to the same job”.

It also gives the following advice “where a hirer has pay scales or pay structures”:

“A hirer has various pay scales to cover its permanent workforce, including its production line. An agency worker is recruited on the production line and has several years’ relevant experience. However the agency worker is paid at  the bottom of the pay scale. Is this equal treatment?

Yes, if the hirer would have started that worker at the bottom of the pay scale if recruiting him or her directly. But if the worker’s experience would mean starting further up the pay scale if recruited directly, then that is the entitlement.

Starter grades which apply primarily, or exclusively, to agency workers may not be compliant if not applied generally to direct recruits.

In short, if a school says it will only pay an agency teacher at, say, an M1 rate, then it will need to show that it also recruits new permanent staff at M1 too.

Each case needs to be argued on the specific policy and/or practice in that school, not on the STPCD in general.

What does the school policy say?

In order to help recruitment, many schools have retained ‘pay portability’ in their pay policies, despite the changes made to the STPCD.

A clear cut way to show that an AWR claim is justified is to show that the school’s own pay policy states that ‘pay portability’ applies and/or that previous    experience is taken into account when recruiting new staff.  

Rush v Academics Ltd 3202251/2020

With the right advice, Jenna Rush, an agency teacher working in a Multi Academy Trust in Outer London, used the wording of  the Trust’s pay policy to successfully win her AWR claim.

Jenna was an experienced “post-threshold” teacher returning to work after a career break. She taught for most of the 2019/20 academic year at three primary schools run by the Arbor Trust. Her pay rate through ‘Academics Ltd’ agency was £140 a day, including holiday pay.

In April 2020, she found out about the AWR and queried her pay rate. The agency agreed to  adjust her pay, but only to the STPCD rate for  an M1 Outer London teacher - £145.41 a day. Jenna Rush argued that, under the AWR, after 12 weeks she should have been paid at the U1 daily rate for Outer London, £212.40.

She won! An Employment Tribunal ruled that:

“There is nothing in the Regulations that says that an agency worker, regardless of their skills and experience, should be treated as standing in the position of a newly qualified worker, once they have completed their 12 weeks employment. The question is what  was the Claimant’s entitlement, with all her skills and years of experience, had the Trust  recruited her directly for the post of qualified Primary Art Teacher”.

“Nothing in the evidence supports the position that her entitlement was to M1”

“The Trust’s policy states as follows: ‘The school is committed to the principle of pay portability and will apply this principle in   practice when making all new appointments’ ”

“It is this Tribunal’s judgment that [Ms Rush] is entitled to remedy for her successful complaint of unlawful deduction of wages. [She] should have been paid at U1 for the period 1 January 2020 until the date she left in July 2020. As she has already been paid at M1 level for that period, the Claimant is entitled to be paid the difference between M1 and U1”. 

What if the school policy isn’t clear? 

The Rush vs Academics Ltd claim was certainly helped by the Arbor Trust policy specifically  referring to ‘the principle of pay portability’. But what if the school pay policy isn’t that clear-cut? 

A Tribunal won’t just look at policy, it will also look at the actual practice being carried out in the school, Trust or Local Authority for setting the pay of newly appointed staff. The key question is always: ‘if the school had been recruiting the agency teacher directly, what pay point would they have been awarded?’

A school can’t assert that “we can pay you what we want” if an agency teacher can show that, in practice, when it recruits permanent staff, it does take experience into account and starts them at higher points on its pay scale. 

If they say it’s individually negotiated, then why hasn’t that taken place with agency teachers? As the Rush Tribunal states “[She] was entitled to have the benefit of a conversation with the [Agency] and the Trust at the 12 week mark as to what would have been the appropriate wage for her. She was denied that benefit”.

In practice, how many schools appoint all their new recruits to the bottom of their pay scale? Very few, if any, because they wouldn’t be able to recruit to their vacancies! However, the more evidence that can be provided to support the teacher’s case, the stronger the claim can be.

Useful evidence for the agency teacher and their trade union rep to gather can include:

School pay policy - even if it doesn’t mention ‘pay portability’ specifically, what does it say about how starting rates for new recruits are agreed? 

Adverts - from the school or the wider Trust/Local Authority that show appointments to permanent teaching posts are being made at higher points on the scale. (For example, Jenna Rush provided, as additional evidence, the advert the Trust used to recruit a new Art Teacher after she ceased working there. It included the full salary range from M1 – U3).

Evidence from other teachers - about what pay rates they were appointed to, about the practice in school for recognising experience.

***

MYTH TWO:

“Schools can pay agency teachers at lower rates because they don’t carry out a permanent teacher’s duties”

When an agency teacher starts to raise their rights to be paid ‘to scale’ after 12 weeks, under the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR), some schools and/or agencies will argue that they have no such right because a supply teacher doesn’t do ‘the same work’ as permanent teachers. These claims are excuses designed to keep down the costs of employing a qualified teacher and deny them their AWR rights.

The teacher - and their union rep - should stick to their guns and demand the pay to which they are entitled. 

What do some agencies say?

“If an agency worker has worked at your school for 12 weeks but only on a daily supply basis, it’s unlikely that AWR will be  applicable. The worker will invariably be undertaking a substantially different role each time they come to your school and should not, therefore, be   entitled to equality of pay under the AWR”. ‘PK Education’ website.

The example above, taken from one agency’s website, is typical of the kind of
arguments that are made. Whatever the exact words used, they all boil down to the same claim - that an agency teacher is carrying out a very different role to a permanent teacher, and so isn’t entitled to the same pay and conditions.

What does the law say?

Section 5 of the Agency Workers Regulations 2010 sets out how, after the qualifying period of 12 weeks, an agency worker is entitled to the same basic pay and conditions as they would have received if they had been recruited directly. 
In order to establish those entitlements, the Regulations refer to “a comparable employee … engaged in the same or broadly similar work”.

Of course, an agency teacher’s duties might not be exactly identical to those    of a permanent classroom teacher with, say, a tutor group. On the other hand, agency staff  have pressures on them that a permanent teacher doesn’t have to face, often having to learn and adapt at short notice to different systems operating in different assignments. 

Above all, the “broadly similar work” that both the directly recruited and agency teacher carry out is clear - it’s classroom teaching - and the agency teacher is entitled to be paid as such.

What about official guidance?

The main AWR guidance for hirers of agency workers is issued by the ‘BEIS’ Government Department. It says:

It is not necessary to look for a comparator. Deciding what “equal treatment” means will usually be a matter of common sense - the requirement is simply  to treat the worker as if he or she had been  recruited directly to the same job. 

Equal treatment … covers basic working and employment conditions. They are those which are ordinarily included in relevant contracts (or associated documents such as pay scales … ) of direct recruits”.

The pay and conditions that must be applied under the AWR are those that ordinarily apply in that school - i.e. the standard pay scales that apply to direct recruits. For agency teachers, the entitlement is to the teachers’ pay scales applying in that school.

What about “specified work” ? 

Some schools and agencies argue that agency teachers are not carrying out “specified work” so aren’t entitled to be paid as teachers. They may refer to this advice from the DfE guidance on the Agency Workers Regulations: 

Teaching Pupils. If the school asks a temporary work agency to provide a teacher    to carry out specified  work in a school and the person engaged to do the work is a qualified teacher they should be paid as a qualified teacher … “Specified work” means planning, preparing and delivering lessons and courses to pupils and assessing and reporting on the development, progress & attainment of pupils”. 

There’s nothing in this advice that implies that agency teachers shouldn’t be paid on teachers’ pay scales. Far from it. It is saying that, if you are a qualified teacher, and you “teach pupils”, you should indeed be paid as a qualified teacher.

The idea of “Specified Work” comes from the Education (Specified Work) Regulations first introduced in 2003 following the then Labour Government’s “Workforce Agreement” introducing the idea of “cover supervisors” to take on some short-term absence cover.

Many employers will have agreed pay scales for cover supervisors. But this is not the work carried out by someone engaged as an agency teacher and these are not the scales that should apply to them under the AWR.

“Actively Teaching”  

The official 'WAMG Cover Supervision Guidance' made clear how ‘cover  supervision’ differs from ‘active teaching’:

“Cover supervision occurs when no active teaching is taking place and involves the supervision of pre-set learning activities in the absence of    a teacher:

1. Supervising work that has been set in accordance with the school policy

2. Managing the behaviour of pupils whilst they are undertaking this work to ensure a constructive environment

3. Responding to any questions from pupils about process and procedures

4. Dealing with any immediate problems or emergencies according to the school’s policies and procedures

5. Collecting any completed work after the lesson and returning it to the  appropriate teacher

6. Reporting back as appropriate using the school’s agreed referral procedures on the behaviour of pupils during the class, and any issues arising.”

An agency teacher is hired to ensure that far more than ‘supervision’, only responding to questions ‘about process’, is taking place. 

As a qualified teacher, they will be ‘actively teaching’, answering questions about ideas, explaining concepts, delivering lessons, assessing progress. They will indeed be carrying out activities that constitute “specified work” under the Regulations. 

To qualify for the AWR, the agency teacher will have been working on an assignment for over 12 weeks. Of course they will have been planning and preparing in order to be able to carry out their teaching work.  Yes, they may  be drawing on plans and resources provided to them, but that is simply recommended practice to reduce unnecessary workload.

Assert your rights to equal treatment!

Saturday, 4 December 2021

Organise to win the NEU's 8% pay demand

At long last, concrete steps are being taken by the National Education Union to build towards the national strike action that will be necessary to win a pay rise that reverses the continuing decline in teachers’ real salaries. But the delay in launching a clear campaign means that urgent steps now need to be taken at every level of the Union if we are going to ballot successfully for union-wide industrial action.

Download a PowerPoint (this version by NEU NEC member Sheila Caffrey)

Organise now so that we can win a national strike ballot

Ever since July, when the Government confirmed they would be imposing a 0% pay freeze on teachers’ pay in England for 2020/21 in England in July, the five Socialist Party members on the NEU’s National Executive, alongside others, have been pushing for the Union to launch a clear campaign to prepare for a national ballot. (See: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1150/33107/06-10-2021/neu-national-executive-agrees-campaign-on-pay).

It was a demand also taken up in my campaign for election as NEU Deputy General Secretary. In my election address, I spelt out that “we should already have responded with a plan of action” and warned that “hesitation only invites further attacks”.

Faced with rising prices, pressure has also been building from below. When teachers see their pay frozen, at the same time as even official inflation rates are rising to 5%, they expect their Union to be giving a lead! Of course, the cost of many essentials is rising even faster – like petrol and gas bills. Next April’s hike in National Insurance contributions will further eat into incomes.

Kevin Courtney sets out the NEU's 8% pay demand

NEU members will therefore be pleased to see Kevin Courtney, Joint NEU GS, taking to social media to call for a fully-funded 8% pay rise for teachers, both in 2022 and 2023. Not only would such a pay award start to reverse the years of real-terms decline in teacher incomes, it would also make sure that the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) had met its own recommendation of an initial starting salary of £30,000 for newly qualified teachers.

This follows the meeting of the NEU National Executive last month where, for the first time, there was a serious discussion about how to urgently mobilise across the whole Union. Executive members are now being urged to brief branches about the campaign, and to build for reps’ briefings in the New Year. By then, the Government will also have issued its remit to the STRB for the 2022 pay award, so members will know concretely the size of the threat we face for next year’s pay too.

While these moves are welcome, a real sense of urgency is now required to make up for lost time. As things stand, the latest campaign email issued to members still fails to mention a national pay campaign at all! That has to urgently change. Winning on pay must become a priority focus for all, staff, local officers and activists alike.

No section of the Union can be allowed to drag their feet over the issue. Nor must the members’ survey planned for mid-January be used as an excuse to back away from action. It’s inevitable that, with such a short run-in to the survey, turnout will not yet be at the levels needed to beat the legal thresholds in a formal strike ballot. Instead, Socialist Party members on the NEU NEC are urging that the survey is seen as part of an escalating campaign and used as an opportunity to identify both areas of strength and those where we need to build more engagement.

A timetable for action

A good turnout in a January survey could then be built further in a full indicative ballot later next term. NEU Annual Conference over Easter could then be used to launch a formal strike ballot with maximum press publicity.  Such a timetable would allow mass NEU strike action to take place to put maximum pressure on Government before the STRB issue their pay recommendations in July.

Such a bold campaign could not only help to win the NEU’s pay demands but also start to reverse the “race-to-the bottom” for all workers. That will also need to include winning for support and supply staff members of the NEU who have seen their already low incomes falling further.

It can also start to rebuild the confidence and organisation of NEU members as a whole, spurring on our fight on all the other issues we face, like workload, testing, safety and academisation.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Thank you for your support in the DGS election

Here's a video that I released just after the result of the NEU Deputy General Secretary election was announced:

https://youtu.be/h3wYVz_w5kY



The analysis below, written by myself and other colleagues, was published in 'The Socialist' on 3rd November 2021. Please get in contact if you would like to discuss further:

"For the first time, members of the National Education Union (NEU) have had the opportunity to vote for a deputy general secretary. In the ballot, which concluded on 29 October, the candidate of the majority 'NEU Left' leadership bloc on the union's national executive, Gawain Little, was defeated.

Socialist Party member Martin Powell-Davies, standing on a fighting programme, won a quarter of the first preference votes. (The NEU uses a transferable voting system, which means voters put candidates in order of preference). The election was won by Niamh Sweeney, former president of the ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) section of the NEU.

Teachers and support staff have been on the frontline of the fight against Covid for 18 months, and continue to be so. In a cruel attack by the Tories, teachers in England have been hit with a pay freeze this year, while support staff and teachers in Wales got a miserly 1.75%.

At the start of 2021, a national lead on the coordinated use of 'Section 44' workplace safety legislation defeated the Tories and forced them into a U-turn over Covid safety. The NEU reported that 400,000 people participated in an online briefing and tens of thousands joined the union.

Yet fewer than 28,000 NEU members out of an overall electorate of 422,585 voted in this election, a turnout of only 6.6%.

This is the result of a leadership that was pushed by pressure from the members to act at the start of the year, but has failed to show the same boldness over the ongoing threats to pay and workload.

As the nomination meetings during the deputy general secretary election themselves showed, many district meetings are attended by only a dozen or so members. What it revealed is that the union has to build from below through campaigns that engage and involve union reps and members.

Due to the NEU Left's influence among many district leaderships, Gawain Little won a clear majority of nominations, but the vote shows that in reality that bloc has very shallow roots among the wider membership.

Of course, there can be broad unity around general ambitions for a better-funded, child-centred education system, but what the 'NEU Left' leadership group lacks is a clear strategy for achieving those goals. As the response to the latest attacks on pay has shown, they demonstrate a deep lack of confidence in the NEU ever managing to overcome the ballot thresholds needed to achieve national action.

Instead, the union increasingly resorts to campaigns that ask members to do little more than send emails and sign petitions, in essence making hopeful appeals to politicians to 'do the right thing' for education. It is an approach that reveals an underestimation of the steely determination of the Tories and their backers to cut the costs of public services and atomise and undermine trade unions, not least in education.

Niamh Sweeney comes from the previous ATL legacy union which joined with the National Union of Teachers in 2017. While she portrayed herself as an 'independent' candidate without the backing of 'factions', she is a Labour councillor and has been congratulated by the likes of Blairite/Starmerite MP Wes Streeting - who has stood aside while NEU members strike at Oaks Park school in his Redbridge constituency.

Niamh highlighted some of the key issues for members, such as excessive workload. She will also have gained support for being a woman in a union where women are a big majority of the membership. However, adopting the timid approach previously adopted by the ATL will fail to find answers to those issues.

Joining the NUT and the ATL together into a new NEU union potentially increased union strength, bringing together a larger membership embracing both teaching and support staff. However, it also risked the conservative approach of the ATL, one that had failed to grow its membership, having more influence, particularly within the NEU's union bureaucracy. That influence has indeed grown and may now seek to assert itself further.

A rightward drift to a 'service-led union', rather than being a lay-led fighting union based on workplace strength and collective action, would be disastrous for NEU members.

Martin Powell-Davies won a quarter of the first preference vote, standing as a socialist candidate with a proven record, taking only a teacher's salary, and offering a clear strategy to win on pay, workload and funding based on collective action.

Martin set out a strategy emphasising building workplace strength, but also on bringing members together to take national action, rather than leaving them to struggle in isolation. The union needs to campaign and organise to win a new national contract that can improve pay, workload and conditions for all NEU members. Immediately, it needs to urgently organise to build action against the clear threat to impose yet another real-terms pay cut on school staff.

The NEU's latest 'Value Education, Value Educators' campaign is, rightly, also calling for districts to turn towards the workplace and to make sure the union is seen as relevant to the wider membership. But the way that the campaign is being sold as a "five-year orientation" demonstrates an ongoing lack of confidence and a lack of urgency in building collective action.

It is not enough to put all the responsibility onto hard-pressed workplace reps and union groups to try and organise small victories in their own workplaces. Yes, individual victories are needed, but real gains, and a real defence against the further attacks to come, require a clear and confident lead from the top of the union.

Martin Powell-Davies would have helped to provide such a lead. But, without such a clear lead from the top, the importance of building from below is now even greater.

Those who came together around the Martin4DGS campaign should continue to work together to offer a fighting alternative way forward"

Friday, 10 September 2021

Why Martin for DGS?

I am standing to be NEU Deputy General Secretary because our Union needs clear and determined leadership if we are going to withstand the serious challenges ahead of us. 

More than any other DGS candidate, I believe that I have the  skills, experience, and campaigning record that can make us a stronger team.

Here's a video that gives just a flavour of the campaigns I have been involved in over many years:



If you'd like to listen to a longer interview, here's one I gave for a recent podcast for 'Lay Led Unions':

***

In order to 'declutter' my DGS campaign website, some of its extensive content needed to be removed but, to show that I have remained consistent, I've pasted below the text that I posted when we first launched the site in January. I think it still holds true now, as we prepare for the members' ballot in October that will decide who is the first ever elected DGS of the NEU:

 Years of funding cuts, pressure from Ofsted/Estyn and ‘exam factory’ conditions have already taken their toll. Now teachers and support staff face further attacks from a Government hoping to make us pay for their failures.

As DGS, I will work to build a Union that has the confidence, strength and organisation to defend the pay, jobs, safety and working conditions of education staff and, in doing so, defends education as whole.

Use union strength to defend staff and community safety.

Throughout the pandemic, I have consistently provided analysis explaining why we need to use our collective strength to defend safety.

The successful use of Section 44 in January showed what could be done when a clear national lead is given, giving confidence to members to act together. I will be a DGS that calls and organises for that collective approach to be followed in future too.

Where do the main differences lie in this election? 

Every candidate will propose changes that could improve our conditions, and pupils’ learning conditions. But the key question is, how can they be won?

The NEU has not been slow to make demands. Our problem has been that they have too often been ignored by employers and Ministers:

Our ‘5 tests’ for Covid Safety were not met - putting our health and safety at risk.

For years, we’ve complained about unreasonable workload - but it keeps getting worse.

Now we face a ‘pay freeze’ - are our demands for improved salaries going to be ignored too?

We need a clear national strategy. My ten campaign points set out what we need to organise and win.

A genuinely ‘lay-led’ democratic union.

Many are concerned that the Union is becoming too ‘top-down’ in its decision-making. I’ll be a DGS that says we must be “a lay-led Union” in practice, not just on paper.

I will strengthen our efforts to have trained, confident reps in every workplace, but I also know that reps need well-supported Districts to back them up. We need to better defend NEU Reps and Local Officers and their rights to facility time.

I will be a DGS that works to bring our union together in our workplace groups, Districts and Branches – alongside NEU staff  – with a belief that we can, and must, succeed in winning our demands.

A Deputy General Secretary you can trust to turn words into action

As a member of the NUT National Executive from 2010-15 and then as a successful NEU London Regional Secretary from 2016-19, I have worked within the Union at its highest levels.

I also have long experience of working at a local and workplace level too.

As Lewisham NUT Secretary for over 20 years,  I doubled local membership and supported hundreds of colleagues. I have organised many successful campaigns, opposing cuts and academisation, defending pay, jobs and workload, challenging racism.

I am still a teacher and local NEU officer today, now in the North-West, experiencing the pressures on members at first hand. I am regularly invited to put our case across to the press and media. 

The clear, determined leadership we need.

In short, my record shows that I can be a DGS that you can rely on to provide clear leadership.

I will listen and consult, keeping up a dialogue with Reps and Local Officers.

I will be a DGS that proudly builds our Union, that works as a full part of the NEU leadership team – as I did as Regional Secretary – but I will also be a DGS of independent mind, ready to question decisions and speak out when necessary.

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Thursday, 26 August 2021

NEU officers and reps need firm advice on Covid-19 for the new term

National NEU too slow in issuing updated advice for reps

In July, the NEU issued a Covid-19 update, assuring members and leaders that new advice would be published before the start of the new term. Reps were also advised to remind their leadership that risk assessments will need to be revised in time for the new year. But, with some schools and colleges already open after the summer, as yet no new advice has been issued. Instead, the latest NEU press releases lack the clarity and firmness that its reps and members need.

Today's National Union’s “Back to School” press release rightly states that the Government’s announcement of £25 million to procure CO2 monitors for schools is an admission that risks remain, but that they “will not arrive soon enough, and only diagnose problems not solve them”. But, if that’s the case, then NEU reps need clear advice on actions their schools should be taking right now.

Scotland already shows that infection rates will rise once schools reopen

Staff, school students, and their families understandably want the new academic year to be a return to ‘normality’ without the stress and disruption of the last eighteen months. But the transmissibility of the Delta variant, and the failure of Government to invest, means that sadly won’t be the case. Just as in September 2020, we will be returning to the same poorly ventilated, closely packed classrooms operating throughout the day, prime conditions for spreading an airborne virus”. (Why union groups must insist that schools reduce Covid risk’, 20/8/21) 

Since I posted that warning last week, news from Scotland has confirmed how the reopening of schools after the summer break is inevitably going to drive up infection rates again. In July, Independent SAGE had linked a decline in Scottish infection rates to the earlier start to their school holidays. But now, young people are mixing in schools again, 'fuelling' record case numbers according to BBC Scotland. Tellingly, around a third of the new cases have been in the under-19s age group.

Does this matter when so many adults are vaccinated? Absolutely it does. Yes, vaccinations have helped ensure that hospitalisation and death rates are much lower than they would have been, but protection is not guaranteed. A proportion of our diverse population will still suffer serious illness, and more again from long Covid, especially those who have existing conditions that leave them at greater risk. Even a small percentage of a large population of vaccinated adults - or unvaccinated children – still equates to significant numbers.

In the absence of National NEU advice (*see update below), here’s some suggested advice for risk assessments

Just as previously in the pandemic, schools have a responsibility to assess the ongoing risks from Covid-19, and then to take steps to mitigate them. In my earlier post, I outlined three key areas to consider for the new term:

(1) - Ventilation and Face Coverings

(2) - Isolation, Outbreaks and Contact Tracing

(3) - Staff and families at greatest risk

I have now compiled more detail on the above as suggestions for NEU Officers and Reps to raise urgently with their schools and employers. The advice - posted below - can be downloaded as a double-sided A4 briefing here.

Together with the workplace representatives of recognised trade unions, schools and colleges must act to reduce the ongoing risks from Covid-19:

(1) - Ventilation and Face Coverings

“Good ventilation is now widely accepted as being key to preventing the spread of Covid” (Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the NAHT, joint union press release, 17 August 2021)

The DfE have belatedly announced that they will be procuring £25million of CO2 monitors over the next term but, for now, few schools and colleges will have them in place. Even then, monitoring is only the start. Action then needs to be taken where poor ventilation is identified:

1.    Conduct an immediate audit of all classrooms and workspaces to assess the adequacy of ventilation and to set out the steps that can be taken to improve air flow in each case based on the HSE advice on ventilation & air conditioning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

2.    To assist this urgent risk assessment, rather than waiting solely for DfE promises, an initial supply of portable CO2 monitors should be purchased immediately by LAs/MATs.

3.    As was mandated for the start of term in Scotland, face coverings must similarly be worn by staff and students in secondary classrooms.

4.    Staff working in circumstances where there are particular risks, such as from children known to spit or bite, where children require intimate care or where staff may need to administer first aid, must be provided with appropriate PPE, including correctly graded face masks.

5.    Across all sectors, an assessment of other transmission risks, such as in corridors and communal areas, staffrooms, and at lunch and break times, should also be made, and steps taken to mitigate risks. Staff meetings should continue to be held online at present.

(2) - Isolation, Outbreaks and Contact Tracing

“[DfE guidance] appears to suggest that everyday contact in education settings …  is not going to be deemed close contact. This increases the risk that infections will go undetected, subsequently leading to more disruption and illness with the virus spreading more widely across schools”. (Letter from UNISON to Gavin Williamson, 18 August 2021)

If settings and employers only put in place the steps set out in the DfE’s latest operational guidance and contingency framework, Covid transmission will inevitably occur, leading to more disruption to education and infections amongst staff, students and our wider communities.

1.    The PHE guidance on actions to be taken by a ‘close contact’ should also be applied to unvaccinated young people who are below the age of 18 years 6 months in educational settings. They should NOT “continue to attend school as normal” as the DfE guidance advises but should “stay at home and self-isolate” as with other unvaccinated persons.

2.    Schools/Colleges should NOT rely only on a positive case or their parent to specifically identify close contacts as suggested in the DfE guidance. Instead, they should continue to identify close contacts on the following basis:

    anyone who lives in the same household as another person who has COVID-19 symptoms or has tested positive for COVID-19

    anyone who has had any of the following types of contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19:

o   face-to-face contact including being coughed on or having a face-to-face conversation within one metre

o   been within one metre for one minute or longer without face-to-face contact

o   been within 2 metres of someone for more than 15 minutes (either as a one-off contact, or added up together over one day)

    A person may also be a close contact if they have travelled in the same vehicle as a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.

3. Schools/Colleges SHOULD make plans to take “extra action if the number of positive cases substantially increases” as the DfE guidance suggests but SHOULD NOT wait for the DfE’s suggested thresholds – such as 10% of pupils and staff in a class – to do so. Those plans should include remote learning with funding to cover additional staffing/supply costs in order to manage the resulting workload. These are costs we must also all demand the DfE meets.

(3) - Staff and families at greatest risk

“School staff, some of whom will not be double vaccinated, or are in a vulnerable group, are also in some cases still at risk of serious illness”. (Joint Union letter to Gavin Williamson, 17 August 2021)

The absence of mitigations and the DfE’s reckless guidance will be causing real concern to staff and students who are at greater risk to serious illness, as well as to those who live with family members who face those risks too.

1.    Every member of staff who believes they, or a person they live with, are at a higher risk of illness from Covid-19 should be provided with an individual risk assessment.

2.    Individual risk assessments should list the protective measures that will be put in place to address those risks. These should include being able to work from home and funds should be set aside to cover for additional staffing/supply costs required to meet those needs.

3.    Schools/Colleges and employers should advocate the benefits to 16-17 year olds, as well as to adults, of getting vaccinated and drive for the widest uptake of vaccinations as possible.

4.    All children aged 12 to 15 years eligible for a vaccine – either those with a condition that means they’re at high risk or who live with someone who is more likely to get infections should be included in this drive too.

*Update: National NEU advice

After this post was published, offical joint union advice was issued on the NEU website - you can read it here.

I remain concerned that the advice lacks the firmness and clarity needed. For example, rather than clearly stating that unions are calling for face coverings to still be worn by staff and students in secondary classrooms, it only states that "secondary settings should ... urgently consider the case for continuing to require their wearing". It also fails to recommend that 'close contacts' isolate, as I have done above.

The joint union advice also links to some useful detailed guidance on ventilation and on individual risk assessments for those at higher risk.

Friday, 20 August 2021

Why union groups must insist that schools reduce Covid risk

Please also read further updated advice from 26 August on this blog here: 

We all want ‘normality’ but Covid risks are still far from ‘normal’

“We are heading into a new school year with infection rates 25 times higher, and hospitalisation rates 10 times higher, than this point last year and with most mitigations removed” (Letter from UNISON to Gavin Williamson, 18 August 2021)

Staff, school students, and their families understandably want the new academic year to be a return to ‘normality’ without the stress and disruption of the last eighteen months. But the transmissibility of the Delta variant, and the failure of Government to invest, means that sadly won’t be the case.

Just as in September 2020, we will be returning to the same poorly ventilated, closely packed classrooms operating throughout the day, prime conditions for spreading an airborne virus. Few young people have been vaccinated. Without mitigations in place, an acceleration of transmission in schools, and then back into school communities, is inevitable.

Relying on vaccinations alone is not a sufficient strategy

“Staff who are fully vaccinated are still at risk of catching the virus and potentially developing Long Covid, which is already afflicting tens of thousands of school staff” (Joint Union letter to Gavin Williamson, 17 August 2021)

Yes, vaccinations are certainly making a difference. They have helped make sure that hospitalisation and death rates are much lower than they would have been given our ongoing high infection rates. But protection is not guaranteed. A proportion of our diverse population will still suffer serious illness, especially those who have existing conditions that leave them at greater risk. 

Death and hospitalisation numbers have been rising since June. Even a small percentage of a large population of vaccinated adults - or unvaccinated children – still equates to significant numbers. These are risks that schools have a responsibility to assess – and then to seek to mitigate.

Insist on reducing risk (1) - Ventilation and Face Coverings

“Good ventilation is now widely accepted as being key to preventing the spread of Covid” (Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the NAHT, joint union press release, 17 August 2021)

Education unions have called on the DfE to urgently invest in ventilation measures in our schools, just like education authorities in countries like Germany and the USA have already done. The DfE have since belatedly announced that they will be procuring £25million of CO2 monitors over the next term but, for now, few schools and colleges will have them in place. Even then, monitoring is only the start. Action then needs to be taken where poor ventilation is identified. 

Having correctly identified the risk, unions now need to insist schools act to protect against airborne transmission. If CO2 monitors and air filters are not in place, the simplest and most effective mitigation is the wearing of face coverings in classrooms. As US ventilation expert Professor Shelly Miller advises “universal masking without portable HEPA air cleaners will do more to slow the spread of Delta variant than portable HEPA air cleaners without universal masking”.

Insist on reducing risk (2) - Isolation, Outbreaks and Contact Tracing

“[DfE guidance] appears to suggest that everyday contact in education settings – even when sitting alongside a positive case – is not going to be deemed close contact. This increases the risk that infections will go undetected, subsequently leading to more disruption and illness with the virus spreading more widely across schools”. (Letter from UNISON to Gavin Williamson, 18 August 2021)

Everyone wants disruption to education to stop. But declaring that close contacts under 18½ don’t have to self-isolate won’t stop disruption. Nor will failing to carry out contact tracing in schools, and nor will waiting until 5 individuals in a class test positive for COVID-19 before taking any action. Yet this is exactly what the latest DfE guidance advises, without providing any scientific justification.

As Unison’s letter to Gavin Williamson correctly warns, following DfE guidance simply means that infections will go undetected and transmission will spread, leading to more disruption and illness.  But again, having correctly identified the risk, unions now need to insist schools have in place safe systems for isolation, contact tracing and, when necessary, staffing to support online learning.

Insist on reducing risk (3) - Staff and families at greatest risk

“School staff, some of whom will not be double vaccinated, or are in a vulnerable group, are also in some cases still at risk of serious illness”. (Joint Union letter to Gavin Williamson, 17 August 2021)

The absence of mitigations and the DfE’s reckless ‘schools COVID-19 operational guidance’ will be causing real concern to staff and students who are at greater risk to serious illness, as well as to those who live with family members who face those risks too. The guidance does at least state that “no pupil should be denied education on the grounds of whether they are, or are not, wearing a face covering” and certainly no school management should prevent the voluntary wearing of masks.

Unions have made clear throughout the pandemic that high risk or vulnerable staff have a right to an individual risk assessment and protective measures being put in place to address those risks, including being able to work from home. But individual union members can best be backed by the strength of the collective union group insisting on an overall risk assessment that protects both individuals at greater risk as well as the health, safety and welfare of staff and students as a whole.

Download this advice as an A4 double-sided document here.