Monday 21 December 2020

No full school return in January. Prepare action ballots to ensure staff and community safety.

The Government has been gambling with public health by insisting schools remain fully open, despite their own official data showing rapidly rising rates of infection in school-aged children, particularly from the new, more infectious, Covid variant. Their failures have resulted in a public health crisis and further lockdown measures. Now they must change course.

The Scottish Government has already announced that schools will stay closed at the start of next term in January. Westminster must urgently make the same decision for schools in England, and across all sectors.

The National Education Union has called for the first two weeks of learning to be online for all but key worker and vulnerable children. That fortnight should then be used to genuinely plan and negotiate with staff and their unions about what is really required to prevent packed, poorly ventilated classrooms spreading the Covid variant, and to keep schools and communities safe until vaccinations have been carried out widely – not least for education staff.

That means:

* properly resourcing online learning so that schools can operate with smaller, safer, class sizes, including ensuring parents are paid if they need to stay off work to provide childcare. 

* withdrawing plans to introduce mass testing on the cheap and instead to recruit and train additional staff who can make sure that the tests are carried out as reliably as possible. 

* fully maintaining isolation protocols, certainly until regular testing is fully and reliably in place.

* making sure staff and students at greater clinical risk can safely work from home.

* recognising the strain on school staff and managing the demands being put upon them.

We can’t let the Government continue to fail. Before Christmas, the EiS teaching union in Scotland won big majorities in consultative polls on industrial action to ensure safety in the worst hit areas. Every school union should be making plans to do the same after Christmas – so that the Government has to take notice.

See below for an interview I have given tonight to RT:


Wednesday 16 December 2020

Covid testing in schools - why school staff don't trust the Government's plans

There was anger last week when the Government announced extra testing for schoolchildren but only in parts of London, Essex and Kent, rather than in every region. So you might think school staff would now be pleased to be hearing that the Government are thinking of delaying school opening by a week in the New Year to prepare schools for a roll-out of mass testing of staff and students? 

However, most staff have very mixed feelings about the Government's plans and their real intentions. Let me explain why:

First of all, there's disbelief in Greenwich and elsewhere that the DfE could jump from issuing legal threats to bully schools to stay open at the end of this term - to saying they might stay closed at the start of next term!

Secondly, the timing. Schools are about to close for Xmas and New Year - so we're expected to just change the plans for the first week back overnight? 

Thirdly, any delay wouldn't be the DfE recognising the need for a post-Xmas 'circuit-break' but just to enforce their plans to make schools administer the tests on the cheap - just another job added to existing workload.

Fourthly, school staff aren't trained testers and pushing swabs up children's tender nostrils is not as simple as it sounds (as anyone who has self-administered a swab knows). Nor might it be safe.

Fifthly, the lateral flow tests are dubious in their accuracy, as the BMJ has explained in detail.

And last, but by no means least, the testing appears not to be added alongside existing isolation protocols but as a way of telling schools that staff and children would no longer need to isolate. Yet there's no proper research that's been provided on the risks that creates - and no certainty that it actually stops schools being centres of transmission.

At least, however, it would be an(other) effective admission that schools are NOT "Covid-safe" and shows why unions, such as the EiS members voting to support industrial action ballots  in Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire, are right to be trusting their own strength, rather than this Government, to provide genuine health and safety for staff and school communities.

UPDATE: See further advice over the dangers of giving consent to LFT tests instead of self-isolation here.

Saturday 12 December 2020

Win regular mass testing of children and staff in every region

The contradictory chaos at the heart of the Government’s Covid policies has been brought into sharp focus by the sudden announcement that mass testing of secondary school students is going to be rushed out in North-East London and parts of Essex and Kent.

There’s no question that regular mass testing of school students and staff is needed. It’s a demand that the NEU raised as one of our ‘5 tests’ for Covid-safety in schools back in May. But why is mass testing only being considered now and why only in these few areas?

Taken from the ONS Infection Survey, 11-12-20

The waves of Covid transmission have been peaking in different areas at different times. A few weeks ago, infection rates in the North of England were much higher than in the South. However, official statistics show that it’s now London where rates are rising fastest, particularly amongst school-aged children. For example, Basildon, Medway and Waltham Forest are all reporting infection rates of over 500/100,000 in 10-14 year olds.

Like some Tory ‘King Canute’, Matt Hancock hopes rushing out mobile testing units can stop the rising tide washing over London and the South-East. But, once again, instead of a properly resourced plan, he’s resorting to half-baked measures.

The practicalities of making sure that schoolchildren in the targeted areas are all tested are far from straightforward. No doubt exhausted and overstretched school staff will again be expected to try and help bring some order to Tory chaos. Testing this late in term also means that children testing positive will then have to self-isolate with their families over the Christmas period that the Government has supposedly ‘saved’ from Covid restrictions.

Worse, Ministers still can’t bring themselves to admit to what is now surely blindingly obvious. If school-aged children are so widely infected, insisting that parents send them in to classes of thirty in badly-ventilated classrooms inevitably means that schools will be acting as a significant driver of wider community transmission. Sadly, of course, that means a driver of Covid-related deaths too.

Many schools have been so badly hit by Covid outbreaks that they are already stretched to breaking point through staff and student absences. Yet, on the same day these mass tests were being announced, one such badly hit school in one of the targeted London boroughs was ordered to withdraw its plans to manage the situation by finishing term with just remote learning.

As parents and staff in the hard-hit North have understandably pointed out with anger, Government failure to organise widespread mass testing in other regions has already left thousands of families vulnerable. Some of their children will have been returning home from school untested, probably without symptoms, but still infectious. When, for example, will mass testing be rolled out in Hartlepool, where infection rates amongst 10-14 year-olds are also over 500/100,000?

But Government failure mustn’t be allowed to stoke regional divisions. Regular mass testing of children and staff should be happening in every area. 

The risk of transmission should also be being kept down through a properly resourced plan for safer reduced class sizes, with some children being supported to learn from home on a rota basis where necessary, certainly in those areas with the highest infection rates. Parents and carers who are left without childcare should be paid in full if they have to remain at home as a result.

Of course, these demands aren’t new. Trade unions and parent campaigns have been calling for action to reduce infection risks in schools for months. 

Instead of just pleading with Ministers who refuse to listen, what’s needed is action to make sure they are forced to see sense.

The NEU should follow the lead taken by the EIS teaching trade union in Glasgow and prepare members for ballots for strike action where employers continue to refuse to act to protect health and safety.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

A Government in denial over the impact of Covid-19 on schools

The Government is in complete denial about the severity of the impact of Covid-19 on schools. 

The latest DfE statistics show that nearly three-quarters of secondary schools and almost a third of primary schools have had to send home pupils because of the impact of coronavirus. Nearly a quarter of secondary school students are not in school - and the numbers are getting worse

The Secondary Head’s organisation, ASCL, describes it as “disruption on a monumental scale” – and they’re right.

Just announcing that most schools are ‘open’, misses the point – schools are operating in unplanned, chaotic, stressful conditions, which are unfair and unsafe for pupils, parents and staff alike. Some pupils have had to isolate, come back to school, then told to isolate again.

And that’s no surprise. As the NEU said today, it’s down to government negligence. They have taken almost no measures to protect schools. While everyone else is told to wear masks and keep their distance and follow a ‘lockdown’, schools are told to just ‘keep calm and carry on’ with full classes packed together with inadequate ventilation.

Their own statistics are showing that schools are the venue most frequently reported to Test and Trace, that schoolchildren have the highest rates of test positivity of all age groups. 

Children may not often show symptoms – but that’s what makes the situation so hard to manage. The facts are that, symptoms or not, children can transmit the virus into and back from schools to their families.

Take two schools near where I am based in Cumbria. After an outbreak, one local school has just tested all its students. 29% were positive! Another has just reported that 78 pupils and 17 staff have tested positive.

And that’s repeated across the country. Staff absence alone means more and more schools are having to send whole classes or year groups home.

From one day to the next schools don’t know who will be reporting as unwell or needing to self-isolate. That makes it impossible for schools to support children’s learning in a planned way.

Instead of unplanned chaos, we need planned rota learning, with some pupils working at home and some at school. That would also reduce the numbers in each classroom, reducing the risks of further infection. But, according to the TES today, the DfE are going to announce that they are abandoning their plans to allow schools to move to rotas! 

Their refusal to accept reality is putting lives at risk. Gavin Williamson can’t just sit in a corner with his fingers in his ears, he needs to listen – and fast!

Friday 20 November 2020

Pay freeze threat must be answered through co-ordinated action

So as a big 'thank you' for all we've done in the pandemic, Rishi Sunak has decided on our reward - a three year pay freeze.

This Government was only ever interested in keeping schools open for their own economic interests, not the children's. Not content with putting our personal safety at risk and expecting us to work even longer hours than usual, they now want us to foot the bill for their failures too.

The Government can’t pretend that “we’re all in this together” anymore. Contrast the way their corporate friends have been rewarded through billion-pound Covid contracts. 

Nor should we accept that, just because private-sector employers are putting the boot into their employees, public-sector workers should share in the misery too. No, instead of a race to the bottom, public sector trade unions should give all workers a lead and demand a fully-funded pay increase for all. We must demand an end to the cuts that are undermining public services and also threatening more job losses too.

But the key question for the NEU and other public sector unions is, how do we answer this attack? 

It can't be fought by just more petitions, or by school by school action. A national strategy is needed, and yes, that means building for collective action. If a clear lead is given, members will respond – but leadership is key.

The National Shop Stewards Network has just put out a call for an immediate Day of Action on 5th December, the first Saturday after ‘lockdown’ is due to end. Local trade union led socially distanced protests should be organised in every town to give an immediate answer to Sunak and the Tories.

The NEU should immediately be getting in touch with the leaders of all the public sector unions to plan a joint campaign of action. That could include nationwide protests and demonstrations in the New Year, building towards the ballots for coordinated strike action that will be needed to defeat this pay robbery. 

Time to take action again - as the NEU!

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Fully open schools are unsafe - union action needed so that the facts can no longer be ignored

A fortnight ago, I posted an update about why the continuing denial of Covid transmission in schools must be challenged – and not just in words but through action by school trade unions. As infection rates – and consequently deaths - continue to rise, the need to take action has become ever more urgent.

Schools transmission denial continues

According to Oldham Council that is ...
A tweet from Oldham Council this week has brought the illogical denial of Covid transmission in schools to its logical conclusion. The Council, understandably, wants to warn parents about the risks of transmission between children in households, especially in an area with such high community infection rates. But, in doing so, it falsely claims that schools are somehow “COVID-secure” as if, by magic, the virus refuses to enter the school gates!

Yet this nonsensical tweet simply sums up the dangerous nonsense that continues to come from the Department for Education – that it’s “safe” to continue to pack over 30 children and adults into poorly ventilated classrooms. It flies in the face of the growing evidence that airborne transmission will inevitably be taking place in those conditions, of the health risks that this creates for school staff, and how that leads to further transmission back into the school’s wider local community.

Outbreaks increasing across all school sectors

Firstly, as the latest slides from independent SAGE helpfully summarized, while the Government is pretending that schools are continuing to operate normally, the reality is that over 400,000 pupils (around 4%) of state school pupils have been having to self-isolate owing to positive cases and outbreaks in their schools. In some areas, as many as a third of secondary school students are at home. 

But this isn’t just a secondary school issue either. The latest PHE Report shows that there have been well over 1000 confirmed Covid-19 clusters or outbreaks in schools since the start of term, across all sectors. Indeed, in the latest week reported upon, it has been the primary sector that has had the highest number of reported incidents.

It’s important to stress those primary school cases because, up to now, the emphasis has been largely placed on the risks of viral transmission from teenagers and young adults, rather than from younger children. However, the latest modelling from the ONS shows that the estimated positivity of primary age children has now risen to levels similar to those estimated for secondary school aged children.

Of course, school staff themselves are also being affected. BBC News have just reported on analysis from the North West Association of the Directors of Children's Services, showing that in mid-October Bury, Knowsley, Liverpool and Manchester all had more than 40% of schools with confirmed cases. Those figures included 710 teachers with a positive test – from about 2000 in total across England.

Sadly, it’s those adult staff who are most likely to be vulnerable to serious ill-health from the virus and those infection rates will inevitably start to translate into school staff deaths as well.

In the areas with the highest infection rates, staff and student absence is already causing a chaotic situation. Schools are left without key staff at short notice, staff being expected to provide learning both for those in class and those at home – but without knowing who will be where from week to week. An agreed planned rota system is urgently needed to cut across this chaos and pressure.

Children transmit the virus – further medical evidence

For too long, an assumption has been made that children, particularly primary aged children, do not have a significant role in spreading the virus. But the claim increasingly fails to stand up to scientific analysis.

Of course, many children are asymptomatic, but that does not mean that they don’t transmit the virus. However, the fact that they often don’t exhibit symptoms has also meant that children have often been excluded from testing systems that are being rationed to those that do. That has helped hide transmission via children in our inadequate tracking and tracing systems.

As the Canadian Medical Association Journal warns, “Children have been ‘dramatically underrepresented’ in COVID-19 case counts because they are less likely than adults to show symptoms and therefore may escape detection … Especially early in the pandemic, ‘there were a lot of biased studies, and people were really uncritical of that.’

As the article mentions, there might be a biological reason why younger children are less affected in that “the virus uses angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors in the nasal mucosa as a doorway into the cells, and studies have found that young children have a lower density of those receptors”. However, it also points out that “nobody knows if their poor adherence to physical distancing and other precautions cancel out any biological advantage”

A recent paper by Dr Zoe Hyde in the Medical Journal of Australia gives an overview of evidence that she concludes shows that “children may be more susceptible than originally thought and play a role in community transmission”.

While the paper points out that “Children appear more likely to be asymptomatic and given that the duration of viral shedding may be shorter in asymptomatic cases, it is possible that children may be infectious for a shorter period. However, the viral load of asymptomatic and symptomatic cases does not appear to differ, and infectious virus is readily cultured from both. Importantly, the likelihood of successfully culturing virus is unrelated to age. Children therefore have the potential to play a role in community transmission, particularly given the large number of contacts children have in close contact settings such as childcare centres and schools”.

Dr Hyde points to a number of outbreaks internationally where the evidence indicates that transmission among children was a significant factor. However, a more recently documented Israeli investigation into the role of schools in spreading infection provides some of the strongest evidence of all. Israel, like the UK, has seen a sharp rise in infections since schools reopened in September.

The sample size used in the Ministry of Health investigation makes it a far more reliable source than some of the early international investigations into school-based transmission. Of the 678,000 children under the age of 17 tested for COVID-19 tests between January and September 24, over half showed no symptoms. However, 8% of the children returned a positive test. This was the highest rate for any age-group, suggesting the rising positivity in the ONS data here in England is only to be expected:

The investigation was also able to track the course of specific outbreaks and show how schoolchildren were part of the transmission pathways.

Significantly, the study also supported the prognosis that there may be a number of people, including children, who appear to act as ‘super-spreaders’. Across Israel, 350 people were identified who had been the source of infection of at least 10 other people. Of these, 17 (5%) were children. Seven children each infected 10 people, three children each infected 12 people, and one child infected 24 people.

Rota learning to allow smaller class sizes is now urgently needed

Northern Ireland and Wales (even if in a very limited way) have, at least, implemented some element of a “circuit breaker” that applies to schools this half-term. However, across the UK, schools will be returning to full classes and, as the facts above have shown, further school outbreaks.

Instead of chaotic absences and rising dangers to public health as a whole, schools should be returning to the reduced class sizes we had before the summer, at the very least in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas where infection rates, and so the risk of transmission, are the highest.

With planning and consultation, staff and school communities could arrive at an agreed rota system that takes into account the additional workload pressures of supporting children at home and at school, making sure priority medical and social needs are catered for, as well as the protection of those staff and parents at greatest risk from the virus.

For example, a system where class sizes are halved, with most children in school one week then at home the next, could significantly reduce transmission risks by reducing the number of contacts and allowing physical distancing to be put in place which simply cannot happen in a class of thirty. This is of even greater importance in the winter months where providing adequate ventilation is going to be even more of an issue. At the same time, it would still make sure children weren’t permanently without the social interaction and support that a school environment can provide.

As demanded in the motion below, any parent who has to take time off work owing to childcare pressures arising from school closure should also be granted full-pay while they do so. Government should also fund the provision of additional staffing, drawing on the significant pool of supply staff looking for employment, and additional teaching spaces to minimize the time and numbers of children who may need to learn at home. 

Action must be urgently taken so that facts can’t be ignored

The weight of evidence is now so strong that a Government genuinely interested in protecting public health could not ignore it. But this Government will not act unless forced to do so. Contrast the way it brushed aside Andy Burnham’s appeals for more funding for Manchester compared to the way it had to shift over GCSE exam grading when young people started to organise opposition.

It is clear that the Government continues to ignore reality. Lancashire councillors reported that when they spoke up in negotiations about transmission in schools and workplaces being the real problem, they were told by Government officials that these were “off-limits”. So Lancashire is now in Tier 3, without adequate financial support for workers affected, but also with school safety continuing to be ignored.

As reported on 'Lancs Live'

For the sake of staff and for the safety of our communities too, unions should call members together and put the case for urgent strike ballots to be started without any further delay, starting with members in the worst-hit Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas.

The National Education Union has already said that it will support individual school groups that request such a ballot. However, staff will feel more confident to take action if they are acting alongside other school groups in a collective battle to call on Local Authorities and the Government to meet our demands. Even the announcement that the NEU were starting those ballots alone would be a lever on Ministers to change course and act on school safety.

Keeping our Schools and Communities Safe

The following motion was agreed by the Lancashire NEU Branch Committee and will be discussed further in the Branch once schools return from the half-term break:

Lancashire NEU Tier 3 Motion - Keeping our Schools and Communities Safe

Our members have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic and will continue to do so to support pupils. However, with local infection rates continuing to rise, and clear evidence of the part played by schools and colleges in that increase, they cannot continue to operate safely with full classes. Action must now be taken to make sure all education workplaces are only open in conditions that are safe for students, staff and our local communities.

Local escalation to Tier 3, without addressing the issue of school and community safety, must be met with an escalation in the union’s response. Therefore, we agree to:

Call an urgent emergency meeting of all NEU members and seeks the following measures:

1) Call on schools and employers to put the following into immediate effect:

· all staff in higher risk groups to work from home;

· to reduce class sizes by moving to an agreed rota system; and

· for all staff to be regularly tested;

2) Call on Government to provide funding for additional resources, spaces and staffing, as well as full pay for parents who must remain at home to provide childcare;

If these measures are not secured, we will ask NEU Action Officers to conduct industrial action ballots as required.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Denial of Covid transmission in schools must be challenged

The second Covid wave is accelerating globally. In the UK, infection rates in many areas are now at such high levels that the "R rate" is well above 1 so that the rate of increase continues to climb yet further. 

Urgent action is needed to slash onward transmission but the response from the UK Government is only a confused and unfunded tiered lockdown that closes pubs but leaves schools and most workplaces open. It will leave affected workers in the worst-hit areas unable to pay their bills yet does little to convince anyone that it is actually seriously tackling viral transmission.

Even the Government's SAGE scientists seem unconvinced that Johnson's latest proposals are going to have the required effect. The SAGE minutes from 21st September warned that "the rate of increase in infections is expected to accelerate in the near future as the impact of school, college and university openings, and policy changes with respect to return to workplaces, and entertainment and leisure venues, filter through". Of course, that's exactly what has since taken place.

The main incidence of outbreaks is in schools

The latest figures from Public Health England (PHE) show that the main incidence of outbreaks is in educational settings and workplaces - not pubs! Figures from the previous week's Report also showed that, while college and university outbreaks are also significant, by far the largest numbers of confirmed clusters or outbreaks are in school settings:

Just to emphasise that this isn't just a UK finding, Le Monde has similarly recently reported that the main incidence of outbreaks in France is also in educational settings.

Teenagers and young adults have the highest test positivity

The PHE Reports, alongside a further set of figures from ONS, confirm that the highest test positivity rates are amongst 10-19 and 20-29 year-olds, not older people. 

The ONS Report is clear in its conclusion that: "highest rates appear among older teenagers and young adults (school Year 12 to age 24), where rates have grown very rapidly in the most recent weeks. The second highest rates are seen in the secondary school age group (school Year 7 to school Year 11). Increases are also apparent across the other age groups, but to a much lesser extent"

This provides important confirmation that, while the elderly may be at the greatest risk of serious ill-health and death, it is young adults and teenagers that are likely to be the main source of viral transmission within communities. 

With limited testing in the UK targeted to those who are symptomatic, this important finding was previously missed because most younger people show only mild or no obvious symptoms. It must no longer be ignored.

No more denial - schools spread the virus

The National Education Union have produced a video where Kevin Courtney summarises these figures. It makes the point that PHE have stressed that viral airborne transmission risks are greatest in "poorly ventilated spaces if individuals are in the room for an extended period of time" - which, as Kevin correctly states, is a perfect description of our classrooms, where thirty or more individuals share one room for lessons.

Yet politicians, both Tory and Labour, alongside too many of their scientific advisers, seem to be in denial about the role of schools in viral transmission.

SAGE, in their latest published September minutes, advised (before the latest data had been released of course) that "it is still not clear to what extent (if any) schools magnify transmission in communities rather than reflect the prevalence within the community". Now, of course, high community rates will cause higher prevalence in schools, as more infected individuals introduce the virus into schools from their communities. But how can there be any scientific basis for suggesting that the virus won't then be further transmitted within packed classrooms and then back out into the community again? 

If test positivity suggests some young people may well be carrying the virus, and they are sitting together in classes without social distancing, usually without masks, and generally with only limited ventilation, it's surely inevitable that schools WILL act as "institutional amplifiers" of the virus.

The PHE and ONS data above only adds to other global research that confirms that there is every reason to expect that the virus shows no respect for what kind of environment it finds itself within. Rather than reproduce it in full here, the threads updated by Dr Zoe Hyde on Twitter list medical research papers that have concluded that:

* Adults and children are equally likely to be infected;

* Children transmit the virus at clinically meaningful rates - perhaps equally to adults.

Those findings are backed up by swab testing results that show:

* The amount of viral RNA detected in swabs from symptomatic children was similar to (or higher than) that of adults;

* Asymptomatic and symptomatic cases were also found to have a similar viral load.

For too long, subjective wishes for schools to stay open have outweighed the objective facts about what's needed to prevent the rising "second wave". For some politicians, that's driven by the cold economics of providing childcare for the UK workforce, for others a more genuine wish for children to carry on receiving an education. 

But if rising infection rates continue to drive more school outbreaks and consequent self-isolation of staff and children alike, those wishes won't be met! 

It's time to accept that schools, especially secondary schools and 16-19 colleges, are significantly contributing to accelerating infection rates, sadly now becoming rising death rates as well. 

Time for unions to take action

Unless serious plans are put in place to provide safe learning in schools - not to mention safe working conditions for staff, especially those at higher risk that could be working at home providing distance learning instead - they will continue to drive the disastrous spread of Covid-19.

Existing steps being taken in schools, largely limited to leaking "bubbles" and extra cleaning, are just not sufficient. Alongside a properly functioning system of testing, the serious action required is to ensure schools operate only with smaller class sizes. That's the best way to minimise transmission and increase social distancing within the school environment, just as we had in place in the "first wave" of the virus from March.

But Boris Johnson's confused lockdown announcements, which failed to even mention educational settings, show that the time for just appealing to the Government to 'do the right thing' is long past. They're not listening.  

It may be worse than "not listening" - they may be actively ignoring the evidence on schools

The NEU now has to act to defend public health where the Government won't. Mass members' meetings on Zoom should be called in the lockdown areas, where the risks are greatest, and the case put that action ballots now need to be started to force the Government to act. The arguments - as in Kevin Courtney's video above - are clear, now what's needed is for the Union leaderships to give that lead.

Trade unions and local communities need to demand their voices are heard - because they know far better than the Conservative government what steps are really required. School communities should decide how best to operate priority rotas for children who need to attend school and how best to operate distance learning for those who can be supported at home. 

Trade unions must use their collective strength to force the Government to take the action it should already have put in place, with extra funding to support online learning, additional staff and teaching spaces, a functioning test-and-trace system, and full pay for those who have to remain at home through workplace closure or to support children learning from home.

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.


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: