Promoted by David Beale, 36 Pleasant View, Withnell, Chorley PR6 8SE on behalf of Martin Powell-Davies of TUSC.

Thursday 19 March 2020

Coronavirus can only be tackled by agreement - not by dictat

UPDATE – 20 March 2020

Today has been a difficult day for school staff and students alike. While Johnson continues to make announcements that are lacking in vital detail, staff on the ground are left to try and turn them into safe and workable plans.

Year 6, 11 and 13 have had an emotional day realising it might well be their last day in their schools. Meanwhile schools have had to deal with the government’s last minute release of a list of who counts as ‘keyworkers’ that is completely open to interpretation.

This has created a real danger that some schools may try and open on Monday to far too many pupils – completely undermining the public health reasons for closure (as explained below). Some working parents' employers may also use it as a reason to demand they turn up for work on Monday when, in fact, schools may simply not be in a position to guarantee their child a place next week.

To try and make some sense of the chaos, it is worth looking at the advice from the National Association of Head Teachers. Some of the key points in the NAHT advice are:
  • This list is exceptionally broad and poses significant challenges for schools. Our advice remains, a school can only open in so far as it is safe to do so. This may mean schools have to prioritise according to need.
  • Schools will need to take account of both: a) the latest government scientific advice on the proportion of pupils that it is advisable to maintain direct support for in order to maintain efforts to delay the spread of the virus. This has been set by the government as a maximum of 20% of the school population* and b) the number of staff available to work. This may require schools to prioritise which pupils receive an offer, according to greatest need. * We note that the 20% figure has not been included in the government’s latest guidance. Our understanding remains that the medical advice suggests that schools should try not to exceed the 20% figure.
  • You should stress to parents that school will close on Friday and that you will notify them when it will reopen to provide the reduced provision offer for certain pupils. The school should make clear that some families will receive an offer of a place to attend the school during this time of wider closure. You must clearly explain to all parents, whether they are key workers or not, that only families with an offer of a place should attend the school.
  • The key message is that schools are closed, but they are doing what they can to support families, given these unprecedented circumstances.
If you believe your school is acting unsafely and/or unfairly with regard to staff attendance and/or pupil numbers for next week, contact your local union officers immediately. If you have no other route, feel free to message me (you can find me on Facebook) and I will see what I can do to assist.

Yesterday's hurried announcement that schools will need to close from Friday has left schools and Local Authorities with a huge task to put plans in place for children of key workers and vulnerable families.

In many schools and Authorities, unions, managers and officials from different services are working together in the best interests of all. They've not been helped by the (sadly predictable) lack of further information coming from government. 

Staff are sharing information, contacting families and staff, and putting together mutually agreed, safe and workable plans. Many school leaders and admin staff have been working flat out to do so. Many staff are making clear that they are only too willing to do what they can to support those plans as well.

Regrettably, however, the bullying leadership approach that has marred education for so long has become evident even in this time of crisis. Such behaviour risks destroying the goodwill and cooperation that is vital if this crisis is going to be tackled successfully.

Staff are reporting that in some schools, Headteachers are simply insisting that schools are open next week - if not for all pupils - and that all staff must report for work. 

Such an approach shows a complete lack of understanding of why schools are being closed in the first place. Trade unions urgently need to try and assert control in order to defend staff, students and our communities.

1) For public health reasons, no more staff than necessary should attend work.

Schools will, of course, not yet be clear exactly how many students they need to support next week. However, it's worth stressing that the Government announcement yesterday indicated that schools would only remain open for a small proportion of children - and for good reasons.

Every educator will want to do what they can to help children and families but school staff themselves, in their willingness to support their communities, need to remember the wording of the excellent letter from one Headteacher that I posted yesterday.

This Manchester Head wrote to explain to parents that, because of the lack of testing, and the fact that the infection can - and is - being passed on by people who are not - or not yet - exhibiting symptoms, nobody knows "if one, none or all have the virus … The government make the point that the virus does not seriously affect children and young people. However, this does not mean that they won’t become carriers. They then risk taking the virus home to their families. Families with pregnant mothers, families with elderly relatives, family whose members might be poorly”.

Many countries are going into far tighter lockdowns in order to urgently stop the spread of the coronavirus. There is a real risk that by insisting staff attend in large numbers, and/or by widening the number of pupils remaining in schools too far, schools will be assisting in spreading the virus further. Rather than helping our communities and key workers, this increases the risk even further of our health services being completely overwhelmed.

Instead of insisting all staff attend work as normal, arrangements need to be made to establish smaller teams of volunteers to staff schools, perhaps with agreed rotas. Most pupils will be at home and other staff can assist them in distance learning as far as is possible.

Of course, needs may fall unevenly across different schools. Those that have greater needs should be offered additional support. For example, supply cover teams should be set up by Local Authorities to help provide it.

In short, for good public health reasons, no more staff than necessary should attend work while schools are closed for most pupils.

2) Some staff should definitely NOT attend work at all

Many schools were already facing staffing difficulties because staff were unable to attend work. This may have been because they were themselves correctly following government advice to self-isolate, have health or childcare needs, or were caring for others in that category.

The letter sent by the National Education Union to Boris Johnson on 17 March stated that:
"You announced yesterday that vulnerable people are to confine themselves for 12 weeks from this weekend. On our understanding this includes
  • pregnant women 
and those who are suffering from:

  • chronic (long-term) respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or bronchitis;
  • chronic heart disease, such as heart failure;
  • chronic kidney disease;
  • chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis;
  • chronic neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy;
  • diabetes
  • problems with their spleen – for example, sickle cell disease or if they have had their spleen removed;
  • a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy;
  • being seriously overweight (a BMI of 40 or above). 

We assume that on this basis teachers and other school and college staff who have these conditions or who are caring for people with those conditions, or who are over 70 should self-isolate".

The letter stated that the NEU "intend to advise all our members in these categories or caring for people in them to stop attending schools and colleges from next Monday at the latest".

That position should now be honoured by employers, and any staff in these categories should be absent on full pay.

3) Employment Law could be used by unions if required

No trade union wants to have to resort to employment law to assert their members' rights at this time but, regrettably, they may have to.

As employment lawyers have themselves been quietly warning employers, legislation like Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 could be invoked by a trade union in support of its members if necessary.

Section 44 protects employees from detriment "in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent … he refused to return to his place of work". In a situation where no Headteacher can provide a written guarantee that their members of staff and/or students are not carriers of a potentially deadly virus, it is certainly very arguable that such a reasonable belief of a serious and imminent danger applies. 

If, as we can only hope does not happen, the Government were to try and use emergency legislation to waive such rights and/or to force workers to waive their leave over the Easter period, then this would be an unacceptable threat to conditions and rights which would cause justifiable outrage amongst school staff. For that reason, it would also be entirely counter-productive.

4) Trade unions must have oversight and insist employers proceed by agreement - not by dictat

Instead of trying to impose and instruct, arrangements need to be put in place to staff schools through mutual agreement.

"School leaders and school union reps, in consultation with local authority services and parents, need to urgently meet together to plan out what can be safely provided, and how much additional support they will need in terms of staffing and resources. Trade unions must have oversight in drawing up the plans in every school.

Many staff will be willing to volunteer to be in the workplace but others with health needs, vulnerable relatives or their own childcare difficulties, will not be able to. The decision on whether to be in the workplace or working from home must be voluntary, not enforced. Either way, all staff should continue to work on full pay, especially those on agency contracts who otherwise stand to lose substantially when schools close.

Local Authorities should establish their own centrally-employed supply pools providing staff who can be directed to schools where there are staffing shortages.

Staff need to be able to work safely, with sufficient cleaning and all other necessary safety measures being put in place.

Budget pressures must not be a barrier to doing what needs to be done. The Government needs to be held to its promise to ‘do whatever it takes’ and guarantee all additional costs will be met in full. They also urgently need to deliver on their promise to provide coronavirus testing for NHS, carers and school staff so that public service workers are no longer working in the dark as to whether they are passing on infection to service users or not".

This video has also been released this evening giving an update from the National Education Union:

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