Saturday, 20 February 2021

Johnson to announce "road-map" on opening schools - but will the NEU Executive be ready with a firm enough response?

On Monday, Boris Johnson will announce his “road map” to easing the ‘lockdown’, rumoured to include a timetable for a full reopening of schools in England on 8 March. Education unions must be ready to respond with collective action to any reckless proposal which puts the Government’s short-term economic interests ahead of the long-term safety of our schools and communities.

In a welcome move on Friday, nine education unions and governance organisations issued a statement warning that a full return of all pupils, bringing “nearly 10 million pupils and staff into circulation in England – close to one fifth of the population”, seems “reckless”. “It could trigger another spike in Covid infections, prolong the disruption of education, and risk throwing away the hard-won progress made in suppressing the virus over the course of the latest lockdown”.

The warning is correct but, sadly, it will take more than joint statements to make Ministers think again. It was the action of tens of thousands of education staff asserting their individual rights under “Section 44” not to attend an unsafe workplace that forced Johnson to back down in January. Education unions now need to have the courage to advise members of their rights once again.

Nobody wants to stop schools opening fully for longer than is necessary. Online learning, certainly if set to the demands of an unchanged curriculum, puts pressure on staff, students, parents and carers. However, as the joint statement says, “it would be counterproductive if there is a danger of causing another surge in the virus, and the potential for a further period of lockdown. Wider opening must be safe and sustainable”.

But education unions, and especially the NEU, need to go further. We must prepare members to use their collective strength if required to resist any unsafe return, based on clear and specific demands about what constitutes a safe wider opening.

Our demands can be objectively based on the advice of experts like Independent SAGE who have analysed the latest scientific evidence and the Government’s own data. For example, they have pointed out how rates of infection have fallen least in January amongst primary aged children – precisely those settings where attendance has remained high. This is yet another indication of the role schools can play in community transmission.

National Executive debates what position NEU should take

Worryingly to me, reports from the initial discussions that took place at the NEU National Executive on Saturday raise concerns that the necessary firm national stand may not be being taken.

An emergency motion put to an Executive Sub-Committee correctly stated that “Independent SAGE has recommended a maximum rate of 100 per 100,000 to commence wider opening” and for that “opening to be properly phased”. However, I understand that it was left to NEC members Kirstie Paton and Nicky Downes to try and add in other key parts of the independent SAGE recommendations through an amendment, namely:

"When the rate is between 50 and 100 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘red light’ safeguards, including reduced class sizes through prioritising the return of certain year groups and/or through a rota system within years whereby, at any point in time, half of pupils learn in-person and half online", and

"wearing of masks in all classes for all school students, primary and secondary"

The original motion also noted the “importance of clear measures to be taken at a workplace level to minimise the spread of infection during any wider opening, and the successful use of checklists by the union in June 2020”. 

However, in my view, school-by-school action alone is insufficient. It relies on the strength of individual workplace union groups rather than the strength of the wider Branch and District. It risks a fragmented response rather than the universal response required right across a local area if a pandemic is to be successfully controlled. 

Kirstie and Nicky therefore also proposed in their amendment that the NEC:

notes the successful use of Section 44 in preventing an unsafe wider opening in January and calls on members to assert their right to a safe workplace.

NEU members need to be aware that all parts of the amendment were defeated, with only three members of the committee, Kirstie, Nicky and Rob Illingworth, voting for it. The majority of the Sub-Committee, including some other DGS candidates, voted against*. (see footnote 2 below - Saturday's vote took place at an Executive Sub-Committee, not at the full National Executive, so only some NEC members were present)

The debate will, however, be returned to when the NEU National Executive reconvenes on Wednesday with new motions and amendments in the light of whatever Johnson announces on Monday.

Speak to your NEC members before Wednesday's continued debate

I am not a member of the NEU NEC and cannot judge what contributions or arguments were made at a distance today, nor what proposals are going to be tabled on Wednesday. However, I am sufficiently concerned to suggest NEU members reading this post contact their NEU National Executive members and call on them to vote on Wednesday in support of:

a) the Union calling on Districts and Branches to organise members to act to oppose any unsafe wider opening, including advising members of their individual rights under Section 44 should they reasonably believe they are facing a serious and imminent danger to their health and safety.

b) The Union setting out a clear set of demands along the following lines:

Test One

Insistence that:

i) There should be no wider opening until Covid-19 cases are securely beneath the rate of 100 per 100,000 population over a 7-day period in their area.

ii) No school should open with more than 50% class sizes until infection rates are securely beneath 50 per 100,000 population over a 7-day period in their area.

Test Two

Given the greater knowledge that now exists on the significance of airborne transmission, insistence that employers will guarantee adequate ventilation and CO2 monitoring as well as mask wearing in classrooms in primary, secondary and post-16.

Test Three

Guarantees from Government that:

i) a properly functioning test, trace, isolate and support system will be in place in order to maintain low levels of infections and support those who have to isolate or stay at home to provide childcare. 

ii) additional financial support is provided to ensure schools have the additional staffing and resources needed for a safe phased return, providing both online and in-class rota learning, and to put in place a recovery curriculum that meets the needs of all students.

Test Four

In addition to the overarching demands in these new ‘5 tests’, that there are clear agreed risk assessments that ensure acceptable measures are in place in every workplace, particularly in Early Years, Special and other settings where students may not be able to securely follow social distancing and other mitigation measures.

Test Five

Students and staff who are at high risk of severe illness, or who live with people at high risk should be able to work from home, using the teaching and learning methods developed over the last year.

Join the meeting to discuss how NEU members should respond to Johnson's school opening plans

For clarity, two minor amendments made to post on Sunday 21/2:

1) Post-16 in addition to primary and secondary in 'Test Two'.
2) To make clearer that Saturday's vote took place at an Executive Sub-Committee, not at the full National Executive. 

Monday, 15 February 2021

A new ‘5 Tests’ to avoid an unsafe, unprepared, premature school opening

Einstein is supposed to have said that “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”.

While it probably wasn’t Einstein who said it, many current scientific experts are warning that the UK Government is about to ignore that adage and repeat the mistakes it has made previously over fully reopening schools. We must assess their advice, and the available evidence, and set our own clear demands over how and when more students can return to face-to-face teaching, without risking another repeat surge in infection rates.

If our demands are not met, then trade unions must use their collective strength to make sure Ministers are not able to put health, safety, and livelihoods at risk once again. As we did in January, we must resist any unsafe, unprepared, premature school opening plan.

Assess the evidence – and challenge unsafe conclusions from Government backers

In recent appearances on both BBC Breakfast and BBC Radio 5 Live,  epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani from the University of London has outlined the scientific evidence that the Government should be basing their actions upon. Her conclusion, supported by those also reached by both Independent SAGE (UK) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US), is that schools should not open further until infection rates are lower. All of them call for wider opening to be on a phased basis reflecting local community transmission rates, and, even then, only alongside appropriate additional mitigation measurements being put in place, particularly mask wearing, ventilation controls and reduced pupil numbers.

Of course, there will be other scientists arguing differently. On the Radio 5 Live recording, Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of one of the modelling subgroups of SAGE, claims that “the evidence suggests that really schools aren’t contributing significantly to community transmission, particularly primary schools”. His arguments were strongly challenged by Dr Gurdasani, who pointed out that his argument was contradicted by SAGE’s own data.

The Government will claim that their reopening plans have scientific backing. But we must question where that backing is coming from and on what evidence it is based.  For example, a January 2021 ONS Report made the much-publicised claim that  school staff were at no greater risk  than other occupations. It was shown by Dr Sarah Rasmussen to be erroneous. The Office for Statistics Regulation have since written to the ONS about the weaknesses in their conclusions and analysis. 

I am summarising below the evidence which I believe can be relied on for constructing a safe plan for a phased return to fully open schools.

Do schools and school-aged children contribute significantly to community transmission?

The fact that schools are “vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households” should not really be a debate. After all, it was Boris Johnson himself who admitted this when changing his plans over school reopening at the start of January.

i)  SAGE evidence

In case there is any doubt, it’s worth starting with the evidence presented to the Prime Minister by his own SAGE advisers at the end of last year. They concluded that:

1)      “Accumulating evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open”

2)      The ONS Infection Survey modelling for December, when schools were fully open, and new variants on the rise, showed that school aged children showed the highest positivity rates of all age groups.

3)      “Children and young people are more likely to bring the virus into the household than those aged 17+”

4)      “Young people (aged 2-16) are much more likely than those aged 17+ to be the first case in their household (see figures for ‘Relative External Exposure’)  

5)      “2-16 year olds are more than twice as likely to pass on the virus within their household compared to people aged 17+” (see figures for ‘Relative Transmissibility’)

ii)  Public Health England Data – and transmission amongst Primary Aged Children

The weekly PHE Influenza Surveillance graphs provide further evidence for the link between school opening and increased transmission. As pointed out by SAGE’s Task and Finish Group Report (above), there is a correlation between confirmed Covid-19 cases and school holidays, with rates dipping during the half-term school closure, for example.

The graphs also point out that, since January, clusters and outbreaks have continued to be reported in those settings where Headteachers have been under pressure to maintain high numbers in class – i.e. Nursery, Primary and Special Needs. Not only is this further evidence of a correlation between school opening and viral transmission, it is also evidence that nursery and primary settings are not protected from such risks either.

This risk of viral transmission in Primary and Early Years settings where pupil numbers are too high is also borne out in the latest positivity rates reported in the latest ONS Infection Survey. Thanks to the present lockdown measures, positivity rates have been falling across all age groups. However, the rate of fall has been slowest in the “Age 2 to School Year 6” age group.

It’s important to recognise from SAGE’s Task and Finish Group report that, while the estimated rates of test positivity and External Exposure are highest of all for secondary-aged children, the rates of Transmissibility are the same across the whole 2-16 age group. In addition, while primary-aged test positivity and External Exposure rates may have been lower than those of secondary-aged children, they were still found to be higher than those of adults aged 17+.

In short, unions and parents should not accept the argument that there are minimal risks associated with the full reopening of primary schools. This is not backed up by the UK data.

iii)  International Data – and the new variants

One argument that will be made by those arguing for a premature unsafe school reopening will be that “there is no firm evidence of school transmission”.  But the reason that UK conclusions are having to be based in good part on correlation, rather than clear cause, is because of the failure to have reliable working track and trace systems that could have provided that UK evidence!

However, there are many international studies that have provided such additional evidence, evidence which must not be ignored in the UK. I have posted links to some of these international studies in previous articles.

A recent British Medical Journal article reports on further international evidence from Israel and Italy. Both raise particular concerns about the greater transmissibility of the new variants of the virus amongst young children.

Israeli figures suggest that the spread of the “UK variant B1.1.7”  has been linked to a sharp rise in new daily cases accounted for by children aged under 10. Similar concerns have been raised by a study in northern Italy where 10% of a village’s population of 1400 were reported to have tested positive for the virus.  60% of those positive tests were from children of primary or infant school age. These young children are thought to have infected other family members.

This potential of greater transmissibility of the new variants amongst younger children is another reason to proceed with caution when it comes to reopening primary schools fully.

Vaccination must be considered separately to transmission

The UK Government must ensure that infection levels are much lower before moving to release lockdown, including starting to fully reopen schools, or we will just see a repeat of the surges seen when this was done previously.

Dr Gurdasani made these key points in her presentation to the BBC on 12 February:

1)      It’s clearly very welcome that lockdown measures have helped lower the Reproduction Number ( R ) beneath 1.0  but the latest ONS Infection Survey still estimates that 1 in 80 people in England are infected and the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospital is still higher than the April 2020 peak.

2)      Vaccinated individuals may still transmit the virus, so measures to decrease and maintain low transmission rates must be in place. These must be considered separately, and in parallel, to extending the level of vaccination across the population. Remember that the vaccine is not yet licensed for use with children.

3)      High levels of transmission also provide more opportunities for mutation and replication of new variants, potentially undermining vaccination response.

4)      A good test, trace, isolate and support system must be in place to address outbreaks and maintain low levels of infections. (‘Support’ includes financial help for those isolating or stay at home to provide childcare).

5)      If the Government adopts such a careful ‘elimination’ strategy, we could return to more normal lives, as seen in e.g. Australia, but, if they don’t, then we may have to endure repeated lockdowns and restrictions for years to come.

6)      We cannot only focus on Covid deaths, again Office for National Statistics evidence confirms that around 10% of those infected are also suffering from “Long Covid” with a range of symptoms remaining after 12 weeks.

7)      Further ONS data on Long-Covid estimates around 300,000 individuals are presently suffering from “Long Covid” symptoms after 5 weeks and that includes a significant proportion (over 1 in 7) of school-aged children.

So when will it be safe to start reopening schools fully?

A range of different bodies have reached the same conclusions about what needs to be done. This should form the basis of a trade union position, with unions also using their collective strength to put these demands into practice, if necessary, to defend safety:

i)   Independent SAGE – “Data not Dates” – A Tiered Approach

I have previously reported on Independent SAGE’s proposals for a tiered reopening of schools, based on the case rates in a local authority area. In summary, their Traffic Light system proposes:

• Schools in a local authority area should begin to reopen when R is less than 1 and the incidence falls below 100 per 100,000 confirmed cases per week.

• When the rate is between 50 and 100 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘red light’ safeguards, including:

-          Reduced class sizes either through prioritising the return of certain year groups and/or through a rota system within years whereby, at any point in time, half of pupils learn in-person and half online (with necessary provision of IT, broadband etc);

-          Wearing of masks in all classes for all school students, primary and secondary.

• When the rate is between 10 and 50 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘amber light’ safeguards. These will allow all pupils to access full time in-person classes. However, mask wearing and banning of assemblies will be maintained.

• When the rate is below 10 cases per 100k per week, schools should employ ‘green light’ safeguards. These will remove all safeguards bar mask wearing in crowded spaces, basic social distancing and hygiene measures.

ii)   CDC Strategy for Phased Mitigation – Masks, Those At Higher Risk, Vaccination

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has just released a similar set of recommendations to those proposed by Independent SAGE.

Again, the CDC propose a phased approach based on the same “Traffic Light” levels of community transmission. They also stress the requirement for five key mitigation strategies to also be in place. These must be replicated in any serious plan for wider opening in the UK:

1)      Universal and correct use of masks

2)      Physical distancing

3)      Handwashing and respiratory etiquette

4)      Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities

5)      Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine

It’s important to note that the CDC are clear that “masks should be worn at all times, by all persons in school facilities, with exceptions for certain persons who, because of a disability, cannot wear a mask or wear a mask safely, or for certain settings such as while eating or drinking. Masks should be required in all classroom and non-classroom settings, including hallways, school offices, gyms, etc.”. This applies across ALL school sectors.

Staff should also remember that UK Legislation (The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992, Reg.4) states 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”.

The CDC also make clear that “students, teachers, and staff who are at high risk of severe illness or who live with people at high risk should be provided virtual options”.

On Vaccination, they state that: “Teachers and school staff hold jobs critical to the continued functioning of society and are at potential occupational risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. In order to support safe school reopening, state, territorial, local, and tribal (STLT) officials should consider giving high priority to teachers in early phases of vaccine distribution”.

“Access to vaccination should nevertheless not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction. Even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, schools need to continue mitigation measures for the foreseeable future, including requiring masks in schools and physical distancing”.

iii)  Parents United – Open Letter, Ventilation, Close the Digital Divide

The 'Parents United' campaign, with the backing of some of the scientists mentioned above, have issued an open letter that draws on much of the evidence outlined above and calls for a similar tiered approach to that recommended by Independent SAGE and the CDC in the US.

It also raises these important additional demands:

- mitigate risk in high infection rate areas with smaller class sizes to reduce contacts, and the risk of airborne transmission. This could be achieved by the use of rotas, or by hiring more spaces and more mental-health and education staff. 

- acknowledge airborne transmission as a significant route of transmission of Covid-19, and provide school-specific guidance and funding for mitigation, which must be drawn up in consultation with aerosol science specialists and building ventilation consultants.  Mitigations likely to be suggested include reduced class sizes, increased mask use, installation of ventilation systems or the use of portable HEPA filters, and C02 monitoring.

- continue to disapply section 444 of the Education Act (so that parents are not fined over a lack of school attendance owing to Coronavirus health concerns) and ensure that a comprehensive, fully resourced online learning program is available to every family who wish to continue supporting their child’s learning from home.

- close the digital divide by providing laptops and broadband to children who need them to support learning from home - whether or not this is by choice.

    iv)   Infection rates not yet low enough in most Local Authorities even for partial opening

While infection rates thankfully continue to fall, if the “10/50/100 cases per 100,000” tiered "Traffic Light" criteria are applied in the UK, then no Nation and no English Region is yet (on 15/02/21) even in the ‘red light’ zone of under 100 per 100,000 cases over a 7-day period.

The latest official data can be found from It shows that it’s possible that by early March, the date that the UK Government may be looking at to reopen schools fully, some Upper Tier Local Authorities (UTLAs) could be in a position to safely open – but only at an initial phase of reduced numbers. Even that depends on other mitigation measures to reduce the risks of transmission also being in place.

As things stand with a month to go , as the map on the UK Government Coronavirus Data website shows, infection rates in over 3/4 of UTLAs are still too high even for the partial opening suggested by Independent SAGE, and others, once a rate of 100/100,000 is reached.

The NEU must demand no school or college reopens fully unless our demands are met

Earlier in the pandemic, the NEU clearly set out ‘5 tests’ for Government to meet before schools could safely reopen. These were not in place sufficiently in September and, thanks to Government failure, our schools and colleges DID “become hot spots for Covid-19”, just as the NEU had warned would happen in our "5 tests".

In January, to avoid our members facing a serious and imminent danger, we had to urge members to invoke their “Section 44” rights to a safe workplace. We now urgently need to put forward a new set of “5 tests” that must be met if we are to avoid those serious dangers being repeated once again.

A new set of ‘5 tests’, based on the analysis above, could be:

Test 1 : Lower numbers of Covid-19 cases

No wider opening until Covid-19 cases in a Local Authority are securely beneath the rate of 100 per 1000,000 population over a 7-day period. No more than 50% in-school attendance* until Covid-19 cases are securely beneath the rate of 50 per 1000,000 population over a 7-day period.

Test 2 : Mitigation Strategies must be in place: Social Distancing, Masks, Ventilation

We insist not only on secure distancing and bubble protocols, but also, given the greater knowledge that now exists on the significance of airborne transmission, adequate ventilation and C02 monitoring as well as mask wearing in classrooms in primary and secondary schools.

Test 3 : Test, Trace, Isolate, Support

Guarantees that a test, trace, isolate and support system will be in place in order to respond to outbreaks, maintain low levels of infections and support those who have to isolate or stay at home to provide childcare. We also demand additional financial support to ensure schools have the additional staffing and resources needed for a safe phased return and to put in place a recovery curriculum that meets the needs of all students.

Test 4 : Whole school strategy

In addition to the overarching demands in these new ‘5 tests’, we insist on clear agreed risk assessments that ensure acceptable measures are in place in every workplace.

Test 5 : Protection for the vulnerable

Students and staff who are at high risk of severe illness, or who live with people at high risk should be able to work from home, using the teaching and learning methods developed over the last year.

This time, for the sake of the health, safety and welfare of staff, students, and our wider school communities, we must insist these tests are fully met.

* I have amended the wording of "Test One" from the initial "No full opening until ..." in order to leave no room for misinterpretation. This is based on the Independent SAGE proposals detailed above.


Download this post as a pdf file here:

Friday, 5 February 2021

Insist on 'Data not Dates' - and use our collective strength if we need to!

'Data not dates' has already become a slogan amongst NEU and parent activists campaigning to stop an unsafe return to fully open schools. It's a phrase that has also been used in an important consultation document released today by Independent SAGE.

We mean that, rather than coming up with a date for return that is driven largely by political and economic considerations, not on educational and health grounds, then instead, as Independent SAGE state:

• The timing of the reopening should be driven by data not by dates. That is, it should occur as soon as it is possible to do so without leading to a loss of control over infection rates.

• The return to school should be phased rather than all at once, with careful monitoring of the effects of initial moves and with the further lifting of safeguards contingent on falling local infection levels.

School numbers remain too high even under 'lockdown'

Undoubtedly, the ongoing lockdown is hard for many families. As staff will know from their own classes, some young people are struggling with the pressures they are under. However, as the document points out "these problems were not necessarily due to school closures but to more general aspects of the pandemic such as the fear of illness and uncertainties about the future". Independent SAGE make a number of recommendations, including the funding of both mental health support in schools and research into the effects of "Long COVID".

A discussion can be had about whether the consultation document's description of the "lifelong economic and psychological harms of closure" is overstated in a UK context, given that schools have in fact remained open to keyworker and vulnerable children and that school staff have been working extremely hard to support remote learning as well. 

Independent SAGE are aware of this and add in a footnote that "the term closure, while widely used, is potentially misleading given that ... some five times more children are attending in-person classes than during the first lockdown". 

Indeed, many NEU Officers remain concerned that schools in their area continue to operate with pupil numbers that are too large given present infection rates. The consequences can be seen in the latest figures from Public Health England for COVID-19 outbreaks. In SEN and Early Years, settings where Headteachers have been most under pressure to remain open to as many pupils as possible, the levels of outbreaks are rising. 

Again, Independent SAGE make some important observations and proposals: 

• The definition of essential worker is so loosely drawn as to require many more people to attend workplaces than in the first lockdown. 

• In combination with tighter regulation, there must be greater support for people to stay at home. This includes a legal duty on employers to allow staff to work from home if possible, and where that is not possible, easier access to furlough payments which, at present, are denied to many.

• The school environment should be transformed to minimise the risk of infection transmission. This should include, where possible, use of outside spaces, enabling adequate ventilation in all classrooms; free provision of good quality face coverings for all pupils at primary and secondary levels.

So, while looking ahead for the right conditions to be able to again fully open schools, the immediate necessity is to make sure that schools aren't acting as "vectors for transmission" right now. The joint union checklist remains vitally important for protecting staff and community safety. This is even more important in areas that are 'hotspots' for the new variants. 

Our rights under Section 44 may need to be called on again  - both now in some schools - and, certainly more widely, if an unsafe attempt to fully open schools is imposed by any administration.

What are the criteria for a "safe return" to fully open schools?

A key discussion for school staff and their unions has to be to agree the public health criteria, access to vaccination, and school environment safeguards that we accept are sufficient to allow a 'safe return'. If we do not feel these have been met, then we again need to apply our individual rights together to insist on a safe workplace for staff - and for the communities we support.

Independent SAGE have suggested the following - stressing these are not a 'blueprint' but some points for discussion:

As reopening will inevitably increase the R number, schools should reopen in a careful and phased manner, akin to the ‘traffic light system’ in Norway

• Schools in a local authority area should begin to reopen when R is less than 1 and the incidence falls below 100 per 100,000 estimated cases per daywhich corresponds to about 100 per 100,000 confirmed cases per week.

• When the rate is between 50 and 100 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘red light’ safeguards. These include such measures as reduced class sizes either through prioritising the return of certain year groups (e.g. early years and examination years) and/or through a rota system within years whereby, at any point in time, half of pupils learn in-person and half online; banning mass activities and assemblies; wearing of masks in all classes for all school students, primary and secondary. It is important to stress that, for this approach to work, the provision of computers, Wi-Fi connections and study spaces for all students becomes all the more urgent.

• When the rate is between 10 and 50 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘amber light’ safeguards. These will allow all pupils to access full time in-person classes. However, mask wearing and banning of assemblies will be maintained.

• When the rate is below 10 cases per 100k per week, schools should employ ‘green light’ safeguards. These will remove all safeguards bar mask wearing in crowded spaces, basic social distancing and hygiene measures.

For now, rates remain too high even for 'red light' safeguards

I'll end this post with the latest figures from the Government's own website for confirmed Coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the most recent 7-day period. 

Thankfully, infection rates are now falling. However, if the Independent SAGE criteria are applied, the figures make clear that, as of today (05/02/21), no Nation and no English Region is yet in a position to open even at an initial phase of reduced numbers and mask wearing in both primary and secondary classes. The infection rates are certainly far higher than could allow schools to fully open. Indeed, they are also too high for the levels of attendance we have right now in too many schools under supposed "partial opening".

That's why we have to insist on "data, not dates" - and use our collective strength to do so if we need to - for the sake of our staff, our students and our communities.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Don't draw the wrong conclusion from ONS data - do not rush to fully open schools

Once again, staff and parents have been angered at the way ONS statistics are being erroneously used, by politicians and press alike, to push for schools to fully reopen before it's safe to do so.

The figures under debate are statistics comparing Covid-19 related deaths by occupation, released by the Office for National Statistics on 25 January. One of its findings, according to the ONS, is that deaths of those working "as teaching and educational professionals, such as secondary school teachers, were not statistically significantly raised when compared with the rates seen in the population among those of the same age and sex". 

But that conclusion, jumped on by the BBC and others as evidence of 'school safety' is not as straightforward a 'fact' as it might seem. It certainly doesn't seem to sit easily alongside other ONS data that consistently showed that infection rates amongst school-aged children were the highest of all age groups at the end of last year. Or are school staff somehow magically immune from infection and death?

Leaving out support staff

Looking through the full statistical download from the ONS myself, even their headline figure of "139 deaths involving the coronavirus (COVID-19) in teaching and educational professionals aged 20 to 64 years" underestimates the overall loss of education staff.  

Firstly, figures for support staff are left out. I have added in the categories I could find in the overall tables, although there may be additional numbers subsumed under other headings such as 'cleaners'. That sadly increases the total to 221 overall. 

Secondly, the data excludes deaths to those who were aged 65 and over. Now, while these additional numbers may include school staff who have retired, it is also quite possible that some serving school staff are included in these figures too.

Drawing unreliable conclusions

While, as a teacher, I understand the need to include all school staff in an analysis of education deaths, I make no claim to be a statistician. However, mathematician Sarah Rasmussen has also cast her critical eye over the ONS occupation data. As she points out in a revealing Twitter thread, to arrive at the right conclusion, you need to ask the right question - and you also need to be aware of the limitations and context of the dataset you are looking at.

Importantly, she points out that "60% of covid deaths in this survey are from 9 Mar - 25 May" - a period when, of course, most schools weren't fully open. The delay from infection to registration of death will also mean that deaths linked to the last weeks of term leading up to Xmas, when school infections were rising most sharply, are also excluded from the data. It probably excludes most deaths resulting from new variants too. So this is NOT a dataset that can be used to make conclusions about the safety of fully opening schools in Spring 2021.

Sarah Rasmussen also points out that, given the small numbers of staff counted in each subdivided category, reliable conclusions cannot be drawn from the ONS data. The ONS analysis itself stated that "it was only possible to calculate a reliable rate for secondary education teaching professionals", where they concluded that rates of death "were not significantly different than those of the same age and sex in the wider population". However Sarah also questions that conclusion too.

A fair comparison can't be made between different occupations over such a wide age group, without considering the specific make-up of each occupational group. School staff are largely female. Teachers, in particular, are also often young. Therefore, for the same rate of infection, fewer deaths might be expected than compared to a profession with an older male demographic.

An alternative analysis gives different conclusions

Sarah Rasmussuen therefore argues that a better analysis of risk would be to compare the ratio of covid deaths to deaths by all causes for each occupation over the same time period. 

When that comparison is made using data for women , the grim ranking puts childminders first - but secondary school teachers second. This is also her finding when she ranks data using a measure called "Age Standardised Death Rates".

Other comparisons give slightly different rankings. For example, Sarah's analysis based on 'excess deaths' relative to previous years sees teaching assistants ranked highly. 

She also points out that, owing to a delayed rise in primary student infection, primary death counts may not have been so impacted until after the period that the ONS data covers. But school staff absence data shows that, in November and December, primary school teachers had nearly the same rates as secondary colleagues. Sadly, the resulting death rates are therefore also likely to be similar too.

Either way, these are very different conclusions to those drawn by the ONS.

No justification for fully opening schools

Sarah Rasmussen's analysis confirms that the ONS occupation comparisons data gives no justification for arguing that it is safe to now push ahead with fully opening schools. 

For a start, the data is based on a period when schools were largely only partially open. Her analysis also shows that the conclusions drawn by the ONS on the risks to school staff are highly debatable.

But, of course, the NEU's insistence on school and college safety isn't just about our members, it's about the communities that we serve. Yes, fully opening schools while infection rates are still so high would result in further staff deaths but it would also result in many more infections and deaths in the wider community too. The growing concerns over 'Long Covid' will be an additional concern for staff and parents alike.

Just to take one last piece of data, politicians should study the data being provided by Public Health England on Covid outbreaks that are still ongoing in school settings. Yes, thanks to the U-turn forced on the Government by the NEU's insistence that our members would not return to unsafe workplaces, the numbers of outbreaks in schools has thankfully declined. But look more carefully. In SEN and Nursery settings - the places where Headteachers are being put under immense pressure to remain open to as many students as possible, the numbers of outbreaks are rising.

If schools are fully opened now, this will be the dangerous outcome across all settings. Once again, schools will act as the "vectors for transmission" that even the Prime Minister acknowledged had occurred with the new variant.

So let's insist politicians draw the right conclusion - keep school numbers at a safe level and keep our schools and communities safe. 

Friday, 29 January 2021

Questions to a DGS candidate - Union Democracy, School Safety, Honoraria, Facility Time, International Solidarity.

Quite rightly, once you have declared as a candidate for as important a post as Deputy General Secretary, members and District Officers want to know where you stand on the issues that matter to them. 

I am always happy to be asked, and always happy to give my opinion, even when the questions are on subjects that I know divide opinion within the Union. Further, in order to be transparent, I will use my blog to share my responses for anyone to read.

For a union where members are ‘listened to’, not just ‘talked at'.

I have been asked to comment on a range of different areas this week. The two areas to which I have given the most detailed responses - the 'Help a Child to Learn' appeal (see my separate post) and the limits on 'Honoraria' payable to Local Officers - may seem unconnected. However, the controversy around both issues contains a common element, and that is a worrying lack of prior consultation from the top of the Union.

As I have written below, one of the reasons that I am standing as DGS is to be a voice at Union HQ that will seek to counter a growing tendency to centralise and  impose policy from the top, without sufficiently consulting local activists and listening to the concerns of members in the workplaces. As I have put on my initial campaign leaflet, I stand for a genuinely democratic  union – where members are ‘listened to’, not just ‘talked at’.

That's certainly not to say that, as DGS, I would not be working fully with others as part of the HQ team - indeed, I think I am the candidate who will best strengthen that team. HQ colleagues already know from my work as a National Executive member, and then London Regional Secretary, that I work well with others, staff and local officers, in a leadership role. However, a leadership also needs voices that will not be afraid to question decisions, and to reflect on criticisms that have been raised, when it is necessary to do so. Without those voices being heard, mistakes will be made - as the last week has shown.

School and College Safety - we can't leave room for risk

Following the 'Help a Child to Learn' announcement, the Union yesterday released an updated "Education Recovery Plan". There's much within it that will gain wide support from NEU members - such as the call for a 'recovery curriculum', an end to child poverty, guaranteed access to broadband and laptops and increased staffing budgets to employ additional supply teachers and others in schools and colleges.

However, once again the plan seems to have been released without sufficient prior consultation with the National Executive and others such as the Health and Safety Organising Forum. If that had happened, once again weaknesses could have been addressed in advance of a Union announcement.

In particular, the section of the Recovery Plan on Safety in our Schools and Colleges lacks the detailed clarity that was rightly included in the recently released joint union checklist for 'partial opening'. A call simply to 'limit' numbers and bubble sizes and to call for 'arrangements for distancing' is insufficient to protect staff, students and our communities. Unless we make specific demands - such as the call in the checklist for schools to be operating at a maximum 15% of normal capacity at present - a dangerous return to fully open schools will be much harder to resist.

The Recovery Plan does, however, rightly add a footnote to page 9 of the Government's 'Children's Task and Finish Group' paper of 17 December 2020. That summary provides the answer to the false claims now recirculating again that schools are not, after all, "vectors for transmission".

It confirms, for example, that school-aged children "are more likely to bring the virus into the household than those aged 17+" and that "young people (aged 2-16) are much more likely than those aged 17+ to be the first case in their household". Surely, it must be obvious  - at least to those looking with their eyes open - that fully open schools were the places where those young people were most likely to have contracted that infection!

For our own sake, and for the safety of our families and communities, we must not compromise on insisting on a genuinely safe working environment in schools and colleges.

Honoraria - my reply to questions asked by Districts:

I was a Local Secretary for Lewisham NUT for many years and, as with many NUT Associations, there was a long-standing practice that a small honorarium was awarded to a small number of officers as a token of the work that they had done for the union over the year. 

I appreciate that some Associations did not support the practice, and, in a very few cases, there may also have been highly questionable uses of honoraria with large sums being paid to certain officers without  real democratic oversight from the members of the Association. However, Local Associations were given autonomy and trusted to make their own decisions.

I am sure we would all agree that nobody should be pursuing Union office for personal financial gain. That’s one of the reasons why I have pledged that, if elected as DGS, I will not accept more than a teacher’s salary for carrying out my role. But, equally, no one should be out of pocket for undertaking trade union work and, for example, necessary expenses and caring costs should always be met to ensure nobody is excluded from doing so.

I can appreciate that, on developing the National Education Union as a new organisation, past practices needed to be examined and critiqued. However, I am concerned that the way that limits to payment of honoraria have been agreed by the NEU Executive are one example of a growing top-down centralising tendency within the union that, as DGS, I would seek to counter. I fear that the changes to honoraria have also been drafted by HQ staff and National Officers who do not all have first-hand experience of the hard work required to build a Local District, nor of the hard-working volunteers who carry it out. 

Such important decisions should not be taken without full consultation and appreciation of the difficult and different circumstances that face different Districts, particularly those where facility time has been limited and the pressures of workload on colleagues mean it is difficult to recruit and sustain local officers.  Yet I understand that the Executive has now agreed further limits to the payment of honoraria, again without having considered the impact it could have on Districts such as yours.

A “lay-led Union” cannot just be a slogan. The National Union needs to make sure it is the reality.

In summary, my view would therefore be that:

Honoraria should never be paid in a way that can be seen as Local Officers simply voting for each other to be paid additional income without democratic oversight. As should always have been the case, honoraria should be subject to approval at a quorate AGM, publicised fully in advance.

In Districts where the union has been successful in maintaining facility time, and where most officers continue therefore to be released for trade union duties on their existing salary, any honoraria, if agreed to democratically by the District AGM, should only be a token additional amount. There will be other officers, including those who carry out trade union activities as well, that could, as now, also be eligible.

In Districts where employers are refusing to honour our entitlement to reasonable paid time off to carry out trade union duties, and it is felt that the payment of larger honoraria is required to assist the recruitment and retention of local officers, then this should continue to be payable, subject to the agreement of the District AGM, up to the existing limit of £2,000 per annum.

Where Districts feel that they are unable to operate without payment of honoraria that exceed these limits, then there should be full consultation with the local Executive members and Regional Office about what support can be given to the District to secure sufficient facility time and to recruit more workplace reps and Local Officers. If, as a result of those discussions, it is clear that additional honoraria are required as a temporary measure, then that should be agreed by the Union.

I do not support any stipulation that honoraria can never be paid to those who are carrying out trade union duties, such as retired caseworkers. Of course, it would be preferable if casework could be carried out by serving NEU members released on their existing salaries from their posts for the 'reasonable time' needed to carry out our trade union duties. This is, sadly, a legal right which is being denied us by far too many employers and which we need to pursue more vigorously as a Union. But where this is not the case, and others are having to take on those duties without paid release, it is self-defeating to impose an inflexible ruling that threatens to undermine the work of the Union at a local level.

Facility Time

A related question, that I have also been asked, is about my views on the strategies that the Union has been following over recent years to oppose the attacks that have been made on 'local facility time' by successive Conservative governments. 

Many Academy Chains and Local Authorities have sought to cut the budget used to pay the costs of releasing trade union officials for carrying out their duties. At the same time, the pressure and demands on members, and therefore on the Local Officers who support them, is growing ever greater. The need for a successful strategy to defend - and indeed, increase  - facility time is therefore pressing.

The approach taken by the Union, of employing additional organising staff, hasn't been the main problem. The Union can certainly benefit from having an organising team, just as long as as there are clear organising goals and strategies, the organisers themselves are confident in what they are doing, and they are deployed as part of an agreed overall plan that is being worked on together by both Local Districts and Regional & National staff. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

As DGS, I would call for an urgent review of our approach to defending facility time, particularly listening to the experiences of both Local Officers and the organisers themselves. I would propose we place a greater emphasis on our legal rights as a recognised trade union. We need to insist that our representatives have a right to reasonable paid time off to carry out union duties and undertake training, and that employers need to find the budget to allow the law to be followed. 

At the same time, the Union needs to explain to members why our legal rights have to be defended. We need to go back to basics and make sure that members appreciate that many of the officers they call on for help are volunteers, teachers and support staff like themselves, released from work part-time to carry out union duties, not paid officials. We have to campaign and organise members to insist that their employers honour those rights, including through taking industrial action if necessary. 

International Solidarity

Finally, I was asked my views on the repression of the Uighurs by the Chinese regime. I replied to say that, as a Union, we should certainly add our voices to those rightly speaking out against the persecution of the Uighurs and the mass detention and repression in Xinjiang. In showing solidarity, we should also help workers across China build a united opposition to its dictatorial regime and the inequality over which it presides. 

Suffice to say, we obviously also need to distinguish our trade union solidarity from governments whose 'support' to national struggles too often comes only as a calculated part of their foreign policy, empty words designed to weaken their international competitors, rather than being a genuine offer of support to the struggles of people to free themselves from poverty and oppression.