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

Monday 13 July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just some of the recent conclusions from 'Independent SAGE'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 7 July 2020

September opening of schools: Not safe until NEU ‘Five Tests’ met!

Download this latest Socialist Party in Education bulletin as a pdf here

Union strength has shown it works. By standing firm and insisting on firm risk assessments based on the NEU’s ‘5 tests’, backed up the threat of members asserting their rights under ‘Section 44’, school reps and local officers have largely prevented a reckless return to wider opening this term.

But the real test is yet to come. Johnson and Williamson are determined to push through a full opening in September, despite the clear risks to staff, especially those at higher risk, and to the safety of the wider communities our schools serve.

The NEU Executive needs to meet urgently and confirm that: 
1. Our policy remains - “Not safe unless 5 tests met” - and they aren’t yet met for September. 
2. Members acting together to protect health and safety will be fully supported by the Union.

What needs to be done for September to be safe

NEU “Test One" demands that the case count shows a "sustained downward trend and confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly. And the Government must have extensive arrangements for testing and contact tracing to keep it that way".

Thankfully, for now, the case counts are falling but, with the lockdown being lifted, will that still be the case in September? The ONS are already reporting that numbers of new infections have stopped declining in recent weeks.

When the data is shared properly, Independent SAGE have recommended that the threshold used in Germany of 50 cases per 100,000 population over a seven day period is used as a trigger. Leicester has not been alone in exceeding that figure - other outbreaks will occur.

Independent SAGE have produced a series of damning reports into the effectiveness of existing test and trace systems. They say testing and tracing is taking far too long and data needs to be linked up with local NHS services.

School risk assessments alone cannot secure safety if test and trace is not in place. We have to demand it is.

"Test Two" calls for appropriate physical distancing and PPE, locally negotiated with schools & local authorities.

The DfE guidelines for full school opening in September are shamefully inadequate. Union guidance can’t only reflect what the DfE says - it has to go much further.

Just as the Union warned, the Leicester outbreak has shown that schools can become ‘institutional amplifiers’ of the virus as it is brought into schools by pupils and then spread between them and back into the community.

The contradiction between the increasing evidence of the benefits of wearing face masks in indoor spaces and the complete lack of PPE in most schools - despite the clear duties to provide them set out under the PPE at Work Regulations 1992 - is another real cause for concern.

The return of all pupils creates a whole new set of risks - far greater and more difficult to solve than those that have been assessed up to now for more limited opening. Reps must insist on a completely new risk assessment, and proper consultation and agreement on measures being taken to adequately address those risks. Given the lack of opportunity for real consultation now, and the extent of issues still to resolve, not least around the safety of large ‘bubbles’ of students - let alone the full ‘5 tests’, no school should be reopening fully at the start of next term.

"Test Three" calls for "comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff to ensure our schools and colleges don't become hot spots for Covid-19.

Many infectious individuals, particularly children, don't show obvious symptoms. Staff are therefore fearful that they might be unknowingly bringing the virus home to their families. Some workplaces that are reopening after lockdown have been providing employee testing. School staff, working indoors without physical distancing, should be provided with the same reassurance too through testing, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms.

“Test Four” calls for a whole school/college to be tested when a case occurs and for strict isolation protocols.

The latest DfE guidance just isn't good enough. It only suggests wider groups of pupils might need to self-isolate if “schools have 2 or more confirmed cases within 14 days” and even then that “whole school closure based on cases within the school will not generally be necessary”. For NEU tests to be met, we must insist on much tighter protocols.

“Test Five” states that "vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home".

In September, huge pressures will be piled on staff who feel themselves, or their relatives, to be at risk. They could be faced with a choice between health and their incomes.

No individual member must be left to fight alone. If this test is being failed by a school, the whole union group must say that management have failed to acceptably account for risk overall. Unions should call on members to act together to defend their safety - and that of others.