Monday 18 May 2020

A wider return of pupils on 1 June cannot be safe - let's refuse to put ourselves and our communities in danger

The Government are on course for a direct confrontation with school staff and their unions over their plans for a much wider opening of primary schools on 1st June. It’s vital that unions now give a decisive lead to ensure that, rather than members feeling they have to accept putting themselves, their families and communities in danger, it is Johnson that has to step back instead.

On Monday evening (May 18th) as many as 20,000 individual NEU members logged in to a ‘Zoom’ meeting to hear their Joint General Secretaries explain how members can resist a reckless return to unsafe schools. As JGS Kevin Courtney explained, any agreement on safety would first depend on:
1) The Government publishing its modelling justifying that their plans won’t be a risk to public health – and that advice standing up to wider scientific interrogation;
2) Testing, tracing and isolation systems being properly in place;
3) Infection rates to be at levels low enough to allow those systems to be able to operate successfully;
4) Local checklist compliance to confirm that social distancing, PPE, protection for vulnerable staff and their relatives, alongside other workplace requirements, were all satisfactorily risk assessed.

There’s absolutely no way that these conditions are going to be met by 1st June, or indeed any time soon.

It’s clear that there’s still hope amongst the union leaderships that the Government will be persuaded by force of argument alone to rethink their proposals. But there’s too much at stake for that. Force of numbers will prove the strongest argument – and the threat of a mass refusal to co-operate by staff and parents.

The members on the NEU call were correctly reassured that Section 44 and other legislation gave workers the right to refuse to work in an unsafe workplace. But the growing pressure on staff from some Headteachers and employers means that there should be no further delay in writing to every union member to inform them of those rights so that members can discuss them, and act on them, together.

Union members must meet online together in workplace groups and across employers to confirm their legal rights. A simple message must now be made loud and clear – that schools can’t possibly be safe to open further as yet and that school staff right across England should, as one, refuse to put themselves in danger.

Clarity is urgently needed. NEU reps will have struggled to keep up with tactics that have changed from an initial position of general ‘non-engagement’ with negotiations to one where reps are now being asked to go through a lengthy joint GMB/NEU/UNISON/Unite workplace safety checklist. It’s highly unlikely that many Heads will be able to adjust group sizes and other arrangements to meet those checks in full, as is needed. However, there’s a danger that some hard-nosed managers will try to split staff opposition by arguing that they have been largely met.

All reps need to understand that this local checklist is just one of the safety tests – and it’s certainly not one that can be met by 1 June in any event. Even if acceptable local arrangements are eventually agreed, there can be no guarantee of staff and community safety without government action to meet the unions’ national tests too.

With a clear national lead, and added confidence given to them by parental action too, school staff as a whole can assert their health and safety rights and force the Tories to think again.

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