Saturday, 31 July 2021

Schools and Covid: Government needs to act to reduce risk, not ignore it.

The summer school holidays are providing a much needed break for staff and students alike from the stressful conditions of teaching and learning in the midst of a pandemic. The fact that school communities, not least unvaccinated young people, are no longer closely mixing in poorly ventilated classroom spaces, is also likely to be a significant factor in the drop in reported Covid cases over the last fortnight. 

But the current prevalence of the Covid virus, even without any new variants developing, remains a serious threat to health. While vaccination of much of the UK's older population has certainly helped reduce the risk of death, a proportion of a diverse population will inevitably still face hospitalisation, particularly those who have existing conditions that leave them at greater risk. Many more again will join the hundreds of thousands already reported in the Government's own data as suffering from the debilitating effects of "Long Covid" many months after their likely date of original infection.

A Government that was serious about protecting communities, and to stop the disruption to lives and livelihoods caused when outbreaks occur, would be taking the opportunity offered by the school holidays to make sure measures were in place to reduce the airborne spread of the virus in schools at the start of the new academic year. 

For example, they could be following the example of New York, where "to help curb the spread of COVID, all 56,000 New York City public school classrooms will be equipped with two air purifiers by September" ... "In addition, custodians have been given monitors to measure carbon dioxide levels, an indicator of how much fresh air is circulating". They could also extend the vaccination program to children over 12, for whom the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been authorised for use.

Instead of acting to reduce risk, the Conservative Government is removing what limited mitigations have been in place in schools. In May, they removed the requirement for face coverings in secondary classrooms. They have now said that there will no longer be any requirement to teach pupils in consistent 'bubbles', and that pupils will no longer be required to self-isolate if they are 'close contacts' of a positive COVID-19 case. 

Of course, especially when the levels of infections and school outbreaks were as high as they were at the end of last term, isolation requirements have severely disrupted education. However, the steps taken by schools will also have helped contribute to the fall in infection rates now being seen:

Slide taken from independent SAGE weekly update, 30.07.21

Removing isolation requirements alongside other protective steps in schools won't prevent disruption to education when outbreaks inevitably occur. Instead, they risk making those outbreaks more likely, accelerating the spread of infection, and put at risk the falls in infection rates that will hopefully be sustained over the summer. These rash steps will also endanger the health of students, staff and the wider school community, particularly those medically at the greatest risk.

Instead of demanding Ministers invest in ventilation measures in our schools, or exposing their failure to provide workers with full pay when they have to isolate, or the ongoing lack of  properly functioning community test-and-trace schemes, sadly Labour leader Keir Starmer seems more interested in criticising Ministers for not acting fast enough to remove measures that can help protect against Covid transmission.

Once again, the responsibility will fall on school unions to use our collective strength to defend health and safety. We will need to insist that risk assessments are in place that ensure a safe environment for staff and the students we teach. If those steps are not in place then, once again, unions must advise members accordingly not to work in an unsafe environment.

Why the risks are far from over - iSAGE 30.07.21

As an addendum to my post, I am posting some of the key slides taken from the analysis from this week's briefing  by Professor Christina Pagel on behalf of independent SAGE:

1) Yes, vaccination has made a massive difference:

2) But we are still far from having a fully vaccinated population, especially when around 20% of the population are children:

3) Vaccination greatly reduces the risk of death and hospitalisation - but doesn't eliminate the risk entirely:


4) Encouragingly, the reported numbers of cases is falling - with one cause of the more prolonged decline in Scotland likely to be their earlier start to the school holidays:


5) However, although this PCR based survey can show a lag behind reported infections, the latest ONS Infection Survey does not yet confirm any overall decline in England, with rates still rising amongst younger unvaccinated age groups in particular:


6) Another factor in increasing rates in June/July may have been mixing - particularly of young men - during the Euros:


7) There is a danger that the further lifting of restrictions may cut across the gains made from schools being on holiday. However, surveys show that most people are cautious and appreciate that risks remain. It is Government failures that are to blame, not the public:







Sunday, 25 July 2021

Prepare for action to oppose the pay freeze!

Here is the video statement that I released on my Martin4DGS campaign Facebook page, immediately after the STRB confirmed a pay freeze was to be imposed on teachers for 2021/22 (with a paltry 1.5% award already separately imposed on support staff). You can watch it here on YouTube.



The school teachers' review body (STRB) report was finally released, predictably late at the end of term, and predictably inflicting a pay freeze on the vast majority of school teachers.

And we knew that was coming. Because the government has made absolutely clear that it wants us to pay for the crisis that it has created. This is despite all the work we have done throughout the pandemic, alongside our colleagues in the rest of the public and private sector.

And so the NEU's press release is absolutely correct to say that it is unacceptable to be imposing a pay freeze. When inflation is rising, it is, in reality, a pay cut. But it's going to need more than a press release to stop these kinds of attacks.

We need to learn the lessons of how we forced the prime minister into a U-turn over Covid-related health and safety, and that's by using our collective strength and using it nationally.

That's why in November, when the pay freeze was first mooted, I called for unions to call a joint conference to put together a plan of action, of meetings, rallies, demonstrations and industrial action, to oppose the attacks that were coming on pay.

In the hustings for the NEU deputy general secretary election similarly I've consistently explained that we need to organise that kind of a plan. To go out to inspire and explain to our members the action that's going to need to be taken. To make sure that we put in place the steps that can help us to meet the ballot thresholds, with addresses being checked, so that we can return those ballot papers with the maximum turnout that we can.

And I've also said that we need to produce materials for parents and the public to explain why, when the review body says that already a fifth of teachers are leaving the job within the first two years, a third within the first five years, a pay freeze like this will make things even worse and create even more instability in the classroom.

But some of my opponents say: the problem is that Martin underestimates the difficulties ahead of us. He thinks we can win a national ballot very easily. Well actually no, the opposite is the case. I know the hard work that is required to win a national ballot and that's why I'm so frustrated that the preparations haven't been done.

And we cannot delay now. The preparations have to be made so that we can defeat the pay cuts and win the demands that we also have to get rid of performance-related pay; and also to win on workload, a limit on overall hours - all things that are covered by the remit of the STRB and the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document.

And last but not least, we also need urgently to bring the unions together to work out a joint plan of action so that we can work together to defend our conditions and our pay and also defend the services that we work in. Let's get on with it, let's not delay.

Martin Powell-Davies, candidate for National Education Union Deputy General Secretary - 21 July 2021

Monday, 5 July 2021

An educators' DGS on an educator's salary


I am standing to be the first elected Deputy General Secretary of the NEU based on the ten clear campaign pledges that I made when I launched my campaign in January. As part of those pledges, I am committing that, if elected, I will accept no more than a teacher's salary for carrying out my role.

A commitment to show I am not standing for personal gain

I have not emphasised this commitment during the campaign so far. I understand that, above all, NEU members will elect a DGS that they believe best provides the clear leadership needed to help defend our jobs, pay and conditions, and education as a whole. Indeed, I am standing in this election because I, and those who have asked me to stand, absolutely believe that my proven record demonstrates that I am that candidate.

However, I have made a commitment to stand on a teacher's salary to demonstrate that I am not standing in this election for personal gain, but solely because I want to help lead this Union against the attacks we face from this Government. 

Staying in touch with the problems members are facing

The question about DGS salary has been asked of the three candidates in a number of recent hustings, particularly from supply members. That's no surprise because if you are a supply teacher being exploited by agency pay rates, a colleague who has perhaps struggled even to be furloughed, and now faces another summer without income, a certain suspicion faced with candidates standing to be paid £88,000 as a trade union leader is perhaps inevitable! 

I am standing to be a DGS on a teacher's salary because I want to be clear to the low-paid supply or support staff member, to the young teacher struggling to pay their rent, to the academy rep angered at the excessive salaries being paid to their CEO, that I am still being paid as I would be as a teacher, and not on what equates to a significant school leadership salary. Indeed, any pay rises I would take would only be the pay awards we manage to win as a Union as a whole under the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document.

Donating my additional salary back to the movement

In answer to the question about DGS salary, I have been the only candidate who has made the commitment to be paid on a teacher's salary. 

This is not a commitment that I have made lightly, nor without looking seriously at the financial implications for me personally. As someone with their family home in Kendal, as DGS I would probably need to meet the additional costs of renting somewhere to stay in London. That's important so I can then carry out my role at Union HQ, fully taking part in the informal as well as formal discussions with staff, Executive members and other colleagues. But, as a DGS also with my permanent home outside London, I hope I can also be someone who demonstrates that the Union is not only London-based. I will travel and speak to members across every region and nation.

However, I believe that the role can be - and should be - carried out on a teacher's salary. While the exact pay for the elected DGS post hasn't been released, the job advert for the equivalent appointed NEU DGS listed a salary of £88,000. After tax, NI and other deductions, that equates to a take-home pay of perhaps £4,500 a month. If that's the rate that the staff unions have negotiated for the posts, then I am not asking for that to be changed, meaning other staff colleagues' salaries might be cut. However, as an elected DGS, I pledge to accept only the teacher's salary that I would be entitled to as a UPS3 teacher, taking home perhaps around £2,900 a month. 

If there any unavoidable additional expenses that it turned out in practice could not be fully met within that, such as travel fares, then I would also declare those fully. Obviously, if I am elected to the post, the details can then be confirmed and I commit to publicly sharing the information so that members can see that I am carrying out my election pledge. My commitment is to use as much of the difference in take-home pay as I can - which my initial calculations suggest could be up to £1,600 a month - to donate back to the movement.

Rather than being for personal gain, I would use the difference to support solidarity campaigns and hardship funds and, at least in a small way, to support trade unionists and socialists to be able to counter the arguments put over by those so well-funded by big business who are seeking to cut and privatise education and the rest of our public services.


Friday, 2 July 2021

NAO report shows how Government school funding policies are widening education inequality

The "School Funding in England" Report published today by the National Audit Office (NAO) is further evidence, if it were needed, of the continued squeeze on education funding, particularly for those children and families with the greatest needs. 

Of course, it is exactly those communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Far from helping children "catch up", the NAO Report confirms that Government policy on financing of schools is only widening inequalities in education.

"Funding cannot be 'fair' if it is not sufficient"

The NAO's 2021 Report follows five years on from another important Report that the NAO released in 2016 on the "Financial Sustainability of Schools", written at a time when the damage being caused by school cuts was being highlighted by the education unions. 

As I blogged at the time, "the attempts by the Tories to cover up these cuts by using a new 'National Funding Formula' to redistribute spending from some areas to others should fool nobody". As the NUT's Press Release stated, "far from being the levelling up that some councils and heads have demanded, this is a levelling down ... funding cannot be ‘fair’ if it is not sufficient". These warnings have been confirmed, five years on, by today's new National Audit Office report.

First of all, the NAO confirm that between 2014-15 and 2020-21, funding per pupil for schools was more or less frozen - increasing only by 0.4% overall in real terms. The funding per sixth-form student has been particularly severe, falling by 11.4% in real terms. 

But within that effectively standstill budget, the implementation of a "national funding formula" has, just as unions warned, meant a redistribution of an insufficient overall budget away from schools previously better funded on the basis of the greater needs of their school population.

The NAO Report finds that: "Between 2017-18 and 2020-21, average per-pupil funding for the most deprived fifth of schools fell in real terms by 1.2% to £5,177; over the same period, average per‑pupil funding for the least deprived fifth increased by 2.9% to £4,471".


The Report is also clear in its finding that "the Department has shifted the balance of funding from relatively deprived parts of the country towards less deprived areas".


Schools have been forced to cut posts

And the NAO confirms that over the five years since their last Report, schools have been forced by inadequate funding to make cuts. With staff costs being by far the greatest call on any school budget, those "savings" have inevitably been made through jobs being cut. Job losses also inevitably mean more pressure on those staff remaining and more children without their needs being fully met.

The NAO Report that the DfE's own estimates show that, "between 2015-16 and 2019-20, cost pressures on mainstream schools exceeded funding increases by £2.2 billion, mainly because of rising staff costs. Teaching staff costs increased by an estimated £3.6 billion (17%) between 2015-16 and 2020-21, because of rises in teachers’ pay costs and higher pension and national insurance costs". This, of course, at a time when real-terms pay was being cut for staff!


The Report also highlights the particular pressure on the lack of adequate funding for SEND, reporting that "Another significant cost pressure on mainstream schools is supporting the increased proportion of pupils with education, health and care plans. This cost grew by around £650 million between 2015-16 and 2020-21". Again, of course, this is a pressure that will fall unevenly on schools, and Local Authorities, serving pupils with the greatest needs.

The cuts will continue - unless we organise

The NAO Report does suggest that, based on reported DfE plans, there could finally be real-terms increases in school budgets between 2020-21 and 2022‑23. However, there is every reason to expect that this austerity-minded Government will seek to continue the funding squeeze, particularly given the costs that have fallen on the Treasury as a result of the Covid crisis.

For example, the Report points out how the change in calculating 'pupil premium' allocations, basing them on the preceding October census instead of the January figures, has also meant that "stakeholders have highlighted that ... schools will receive less pupil premium than they would have done, directly affecting disadvantaged pupils".

It's also worth noting that the Report states that "self-generated income has amounted to around £3 billion per year (equivalent to around 7% of core funding)". This again shows how schools are being forced by an "education market" to sell services and rent facilities - rather than being a free resource for their local community.  The pandemic has also left sectors particularly reliant on funding generation, such as Early Years, particularly exposed. 

The NAO also cast considerable doubt on the Government's claims that schools have had the funding needed to meet the additional costs of trying to make schools and students "Covid-safe". They point out that "the stakeholders we consulted told us, based on the Education Policy Institute’s work and their own research, that the funding provided by the Department
was insufficient to meet the costs arising from the pandemic".

As it is, it's worth remembering that the UK has some of the largest numbers in school classes globally, especially in primary schools. That is bound to have been a contributory factor to the rate of viral transmission in our schools. It will remain a significant factor in undermining education in future. We need a major investment in education, not just a minor temporary increase in real-terms funding.


In conclusion, the NAO Report shows again that the issue of school funding is a critical one for the NEU and the parents and students in our school communities. We will need to go out once again to our communities, on stalls and on the school gates, to explain to parents and fellow trade unionists why this Government threatens all of our children's futures - but particularly those with the greatest needs.

Monday, 28 June 2021

Some more questions to a DGS candidate - support staff and the voice of members in the NEU

Following a further hustings for NEU members in Wales, held on 23 June, I have been asked to respond to two additional questions. For transparency, I am sharing my responses below.

If you are interested in watching the speeches and responses from all three DGS candidates at the 23 June meetings, the Zoom recording has been posted here:




Q: Where do you think Support staff fit into the educational landscape in the future? Do you think that Support staff are viewed differently since the pandemic and not as previously described as "paint pot washers" or "playtime helpers"? Do you feel proud to have support staff stand beside you as members of the NEU?

Answer:
Firstly, I would want every NEU member to strongly challenge any colleague who demonstrates such an insulting attitude to Support Staff colleagues. Support Staff play an essential role in the work of every classroom and every educational institution, as essential a role as all other members of the staff team. Sadly, however, it is these members who suffer the lowest pay-rates, including too often term-time only pay, are pressurised into taking on duties outside their contracted duties, and are often the first to be targeted when schools look to 'restructure' in order to meet the demands of the education cuts being imposed by the Westminster Government.

If anyone doubts the role of support staff, I would draw their attention to the April 2021 Report published by the UCL/Institute of Education about the "unsung heroes of the pandemic". It focussed on the work of TAs, although, of course, support staff posts encompass a much wider range of roles as well.

The UCL report concluded that "our research reveals how essential TAs are to the day-to-day running of schools. This is true in more normal times as well as during a pandemic. If we are to build a more resilient education system going forward, then their voices need to be heard. The unique understanding and clear view of what matters most within their communities, which they have gained from working on the frontline, should be respected and recognised". While this was research funded by Unison, it's a message that should be emphasised across the education unions.

Increasing numbers of support staff members are choosing to join the NEU because they believe we can provide the campaigning strength to represent their needs. I certainly feel proud to have them alongside me, and all colleagues, as members of the NEU. One of the chief strengths of coming together as the NEU is that we could then start to build a stronger, genuinely all-educator Union, bringing together all staff across the workplace. However, as things stand, the TUC Agreement means that we still can’t ‘actively’ recruit support staff – nor are we recognised for collective bargaining purposes at local nor national level.

NEU Conference agreed to instruct the Executive to review this Agreement and, as DGS, I’d want to make sure that was done with urgency. We need to say to our UNISON, GMB and UNITE colleagues that having our voice at the table will strengthen all our hands – and that support staff colleagues need to be able to openly choose the union that they think fights best for them – whichever it is – and that we work jointly as unions to protect education and Support Staff pay, jobs and conditions together.

Finally, their place in the educational landscape of the future depends on how strongly and successfully we can organise that fight. If we are to succeed in delivering our vision of fully-funded, genuinely comprehensive education that meets the needs of every learner, then support staff will very much be part of the future of education. 

Support staff will be vital as essential support to learners - and the teacher - in the classroom, as mentors and help to those with specific needs, as lunchtime supervisors, cleaners, catering and office staff and, of course, as staff carrying out a wide range of essential administrative and other functions within the workplace. However, if we fail to do so, then support staff will continue to face low pay, 'job creep' and job cuts.

That's why I am standing to be a DGS with the experience, commitment and campaigning record needed to strengthen our leadership team so that we can make sure it is our vision that is implemented, not that of the Westminster government.

Q: Since the amalgamation of ATL and NUT the voice of certain sections of education has diminished drastically: namely education leaders, post 16, especially FE, and the clear voice of Wales. What strategies would you implement to stop any further loss of voice, and possibly members for these sectors, and the needs of devolved nations, especially Wales.

Answer:
I'd like to thank the member for raising their concern that they feel that the voice of these sections of the union has diminished. In a union the size of the NEU, covering members from different nations, regions, and educational sectors, there is inevitably a risk that some voices will feel they are not being heard. As DGS, I would remind both staff and Executive members that, in all our work, careful attention must be made to making sure that all voices feel they are being heard and included in the union's activities.

To make sure we are hearing the voice of different sectors, I pledged in my "Manifesto for Wales" that I will work to ensure that the whole Union is a genuinely “lay-led Union”, by encouraging thriving Local Districts, workplace rep and member networks. As DGS, I would provide committed leadership that emphasised the importance of building those thriving structures, rooted in the experiences and needs of NEU members in the workplace, but, just as importantly, I would be a DGS that ensured the issues and concerns being raised were heard and acted upon".

Similarly, I made the pledge at the June 23rd Wales hustings that "I would be a DGS who make sure the Union continues to build our networks of, for example, supply members, support staff and young educators - and acts on the specific concerns they face". I would, of course, extend that approach to the sectors referred to in the question. 

Specifically, as someone who has been working for the last year within the FE sector, I am aware of the particular pressures of funding and curriculum change, as well as the need to work collaboratively alongside other unions, notably the UCU, which the union needs to pay attention to by listening to the voice of post-16 members. 

In terms of NEU leadership members, as I have stated in a number of hustings, then they can play a very important role in arguing for and supporting the implementation of union policies - not least on curriculum. However, again, the particular pressures on them, not least when faced with managing funding cuts, needs to be better addressed, supporting Heads to work with the Union to campaign for Trusts and Local Authorities to work with us in demanding additional funding rather than putting pressure on Heads simply to manage unacceptable cuts.

In terms of the voice of members in Wales, I have written in an answer to a previous question from a NEU Cymru member that:

"In electing me, you will have a DGS who listens and takes account of different points of view and who recognises the need to go out to engage many members not involved in the Union. This commitment, of course, applies to educators across the Union but certainly to educators in Wales who are working in a devolved system which differs in some important ways from England. In listening to the experiences of educators in Wales, the Union also needs to ensure that it exchanges those experiences with colleagues from the rest of the Union, and, indeed, vice versa. In that way, lessons that may be learned on, say, curriculum changes in Wales, or, for example, on SEN/ALN issues in England, can be shared to best effect.

Fundamentally, of course, educators across the whole Union face the same pressures of funding cuts and excessive workload and these over-arching campaigns must be fought union-wide, bringing together educators from every nation. As DGS, I will strive to ensure that Union policy is written in a way that is applicable to educators across the Union to facilitate such united campaigning. I would also want to remind the various policy and campaigns teams at Head Office that the particular context of Wales is also always remembered in their work and proposals.

Practically, as a DGS committed to listening to the voices of members, it goes without saying that I will make myself available to speak to members in Wales both in person and through online conferencing. For example, I would be very happy to speak to, and discuss with, members at the Wales Council and NEU Cymru Conference. I would also hold regular "meet with Martin" calls where members could raise issues with me directly as DGS.

However, I believe that the key to making sure the voices of Welsh educators are heard, and, indeed, to ensure that the whole Union is genuinely “a lay-led Union” in practice, is to have thriving Local Districts, workplace rep and member networks. As DGS, my commitment would be, firstly, to provide leadership that emphasised the importance of building those structures, rooted in the experiences and needs of NEU members in the workplace, and, secondly, to make sure the issues and concerns being raised were heard and acted upon by the Union.

District meetings need to be well advertised, regularly held, and built for, with discussion topics that will attract members. The agendas should make sure workplace reps are given a voice and, at the same time, a direction to address the issues they are facing. For example, I would be keen to discuss further whether the possibility of a campaign around a "National Contract for Wales", seeking negotiations with the Welsh Government on key demands around pay, workload and staffing, might be one that would build interest and support.

I know that supply members have already done important work in Wales. This provides an example of how networks can be built bringing together educators facing particular issues for the Union, for example, as well as supply educators, support staff, women and young educators.

As DGS, I would commit to helping NEU Cymru in building in this way, and to discuss with Executive members and NEU Cymru what resources and staffing might be needed. Through such an approach, I hope NEU Cymru would grow and be strengthened and the voice of Welsh educators more clearly heard, not just by me as DGS, but within Local Districts, within the Union as a whole and, of course, by both the Welsh and Westminster governments"

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Unions should oppose flawed trials into Daily Contact Testing in schools

This morning, an important open letter signed by scientists and campaigners has been published by the British Medical Journal. It raises serious scientific and ethical concerns about the trials being conducted in some schools on the use of Daily Contact Testing as an alternative to isolation of contacts of cases. I share those concerns, and have signed the letter. 

As part of my campaign to be the first elected Deputy General Secretary of the NEU, I have made clear that I will speak up when I think a different perspective is needed. I would not expect this to be one of those occasions. However, to my surprise, the letter has not been signed officially by the NEU, nor other trade unions.

For all the reasons outlined in the letter, not least the greater transmissibility of the now dominant delta variant and the questionable accuracy of Lateral Flow Testing, I hope that education unions will make clear that they share the concerns raised today.

The health and safety of staff, students and their families will be at risk if the DfE presses ahead and uses these flawed trials as justification to adopt Daily Contact Testing as an alternative to isolation across schools and colleges as a whole. 

Educators and their trade unions should be insisting that, instead, the necessary mitigations needed to reduce transmission in schools, as well as the educational disruption that results from outbreaks, are in place. This should including supporting those who have to isolate - both financially and educationally - when that is needed to reduce further transmission within schools and their communities.


The full text of the letter can be found on the BMJ blog here:

A summary of the issues raised, as set out in the press release from the BMJ, is posted below:

"Daily contact testing trials in schools are unethical, and extending them to include the delta variant puts everyone at risk, warn experts in The BMJ today.
In an open letter to Gavin Williamson, UK Secretary of State for Education, a large group of healthcare professionals, scientists, educational bodies, parents, and caregivers call on the government to suspend these trials immediately, saying "the risks and potential consequences are very serious."
They welcome the principle of conducting research to reduce school absences associated with covid-19, and understand the appeal of a study evaluating the effectiveness of regular lateral flow testing in schools as an alternative to 10-day isolation for contacts of cases.
But they argue that these trials fail to meet several requirements in good clinical practice guidelines, such as sufficient information about how the trials are carried out, and what would happen should there be any significant safety concerns.

They outline several concerns including:
* risks due to missed infections by lateral flow tests in schools
* inadequate informed consent
* lack of consideration and communication of possible harms
* additional risks to children, staff and families posed by the spread of the delta variant
* lack of robust mitigations (masks, ventilation, smaller bubbles, outdoor learning) in schools

These concerns have become even greater in the light of the dominance of the delta variant and recall of the INNOVA lateral flow test following investigations by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they explain.
"In light of the above, we ask the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to suspend these trials immediately, pending adoption of comprehensive mitigations and to allow time to prepare and provide vital clarity to students, families, teachers, the wider public and the scientific community about the scientific justification and ethical considerations for these trials," they write.
"We would be very concerned about results from these trials being used as the basis for any public health policy, given the assessment of risk of increased transmission arising from these trials is inadequate."

They add: "It is deeply concerning that the daily contact testing trials are being presented as a solution for educational disruption when so little has been done in the way of basic and highly effective mitigations that would help reduce educational disruption, and investment in catch-up learning to address inequities created by this." 
"Keeping potentially infected and infectious children and staff in school may make attendance numbers look better for the short term, but the risks and potential consequences are very serious," they conclude.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Questions for a DGS candidate from members in Wales

As part of the ongoing nominations stage of the campaign to elect the NEU's first elected Deputy General Secretary, two all-Wales hustings have been organised for NEU Cymru members.

As I explained at the first of those hustings, hosted by Caerphilly NEU on 10 June, the devolution of powers to the Welsh Government presents a somewhat different context for educators in Wales - but also some different opportunities for collective organisation.

Up to now, Wales has managed to avoid the break-up of education into academy chains that has inflicted so much damage in England, and won curriculum changes that at least move closer to putting the needs of children and educational expertise first, rather than the narrowing of the curriculum enforced by SATs in England.

Of course, contradictions remain, and NEU Cymru members will know that for change to be implemented properly, it requires time for training and curriculum development and funding for sufficient staffing and resources.

Therefore, the issue of education funding remains a key one. The Westminster Government announcement of recovery expenditure of just £50 per pupil is clear evidence that they have no intention of investing in children’s futures. In Wales, as the block grant  has fallen, so has education spending fallen - by 6% in real-terms - and there is good reason to fear that Westminster will seek to cut further still.

Therefore, NEU Cymru, alongside the whole of the NEU, is going to need to organise to expose the cuts and the unmet needs of our learners and build a united community campaign to demand the funding that’s needed.

But the fact that education decisions are devolved gives the Union organising avenues that aren’t open in the same way in England. For example, the work done by the Union and its supply activists showed how pressure led to gains on an all-Wales basis with the New Framework Agreement for supply teachers. But, of course, those gains have been limited while agencies continue to ignore those pay rates – and the battle continues to win the direct employment of supply teachers paid according to the STPCD and as part of the TPS.

But, as well as that continued campaign for supply colleagues, I would want to discuss with NEU Cymru members whether a campaign could be fought to win a National Contract for Wales for all education staff. I have long argued that the NEU should bring together they key concerns around pay, working hours and education into one unified campaign for such a new National Contract for all. But, as was achieved in some Local Authorities through winning ‘workload charters’, while building such a campaign on a union-wide basis, we should also look to make gains through individual employers and, through putting pressure on the Welsh Government, across Wales.

Here is a shortened version of my contribution, posted to YouTube:


Here is my A4 leaflet setting out my "Manifesto for Wales" - please download a copy from here.


Since the hustings, I have been asked to respond to a couple of supplementary questions which there was not time to answer at the hustings. Here are my replies:

1) "What commitment will you be making to listening to Welsh educators and can you give practical examples of how you will do this? 

I want to restate the commitment that I made at the hustings last week that, "in electing me, you will have a DGS who listens and takes account of different points of view" and "who recognises the need to go out to engage many members not involved in the Union". 

This commitment, of course, applies to educators across the Union but certainly to educators in Wales who are working in a devolved system which differs in some important ways from England. In listening to the experiences of educators in Wales, the Union also needs to ensure that it exchanges those experiences with colleagues from the rest of the Union, and, indeed, vice versa. In that way, lessons that may be learned on, say, curriculum changes in Wales, or, for example, on SEN/ALN issues in England, can be shared to best effect. 

Fundamentally, of course, educators across the whole Union face the same pressures of funding cuts and excessive workload and these over-arching campaigns must be fought union-wide, bringing together educators from every nation. As DGS, I will strive to ensure that Union policy is written in a way that is applicable to educators across the Union to facilitate such united campaigning. I would also want to remind the various policy and campaigns teams at Head Office that the particular context of Wales is also always remembered in their work and proposals.

Practically, as a DGS committed to listening to the voices of members, it goes without saying that I will make myself available to speak to members in Wales both in person and through online conferencing. For example, I would be very happy to speak to, and discuss with, members at the Wales Council and NEU Cymru Conference. I would also hold regular "meet with Martin" calls where members could raise issues with me directly as DGS.

However, I believe that the key to making sure the voices of Welsh educators are heard, and, indeed, to ensure that the whole Union is  genuinely “a lay-led Union” in practice, is to have thriving Local Districts, workplace rep and member networks. As DGS, my commitment would be, firstly, to provide leadership that emphasised the importance of building those structures, rooted in the experiences and needs of NEU members in the workplace, and, secondly, to make sure the issues and concerns being raised were heard and acted upon by the Union.

District meetings need to be well advertised, regularly held, and built for, with discussion topics that will attract members. The agendas should make sure workplace reps are given a voice and, at the same time, a direction to address the issues they are facing. For example, I would be keen to discuss further whether the possibility of a campaign around a "National Contract for Wales", seeking negotiations with the Welsh Government on key demands around pay, workload and staffing, might be one that would build interest and support.

I know that supply members have already done important work in Wales. This provides an example of how networks can be built bringing together educators facing particular issues for the Union, for example, as well as supply educators, support staff, women and young educators. 

As DGS, I would commit to helping NEU Cymru in building in this way, and to discuss with Executive members and NEU Cymru what resources and staffing might be needed. Through such an approach, I hope NEU Cymru would grow and be strengthened and the voice of Welsh educators more clearly heard, not just by me as DGS, but within Local Districts, within the Union as a whole and, of course, by both the Welsh and Westminster governments!

2) "How would candidates ensure fairness in performance management procedures for ALN Teachers, as the current one size fits all approach by using mainstream standards is not always fair?

This is certainly a concern that is not restricted to Wales but is raised by SEN and ALN teachers across the Union, as well as by staff more generally. I have provided advice as a caseworker on the issue, as I explain below. However, fundamentally, performance management procedures will remain inherently unfair whilst linked to performance pay and a model of pupil progress which places too much emphasis on narrow learning outcomes. Therefore, while giving advice to support ALN teachers right now, we must also raise the wider need to win a new National Contract that, as I have called for in a motion tabled at the NEU Annual Conference 2021 agenda, includes the demand for guaranteed pay progression and an end to performance-related pay. It was a pity that this specific demand was removed in a "delete all and replace" amendment when debated at the NEU National Executive in May. I certainly hope that, with further discussion, this demand will be included in our campaign for a new 'National Contract for Education'.

The emphasis on 'pupil progress' is based on a false linear model that assumes all children progress at a prescribed rate. It has led in too many schools to a damaging emphasis on "RAG" rating of pupil progress, placing unhealthy pressure on both staff and students. This is, of course, even more the case with children with Additional Learning Needs. Education must be based on a more holistic viewpoint that emphasises progress in social and emotional terms too. Perhaps the 'four purposes' in the new curriculum in Wales - and specifically the aim to develop "healthy, confident individuals" - can be used as an argument to support ALN staff in resisting a narrow application of performance management targets. Instead, performance management targets should be based on this wider aim.

Specifically, in terms of casework advice, then I attach some guidance that I produce as Lewisham NUT Secretary in 2015. While this was general advice to all members based on policies specific to this London Local Authority at that time, I believe that there are points within it that can still be generalised in answer to the query about ALN staff performance management. In particular, it advises that, rather than accepting numerical targets which cannot possible be genuinely ‘SMART’, targets should be agreed that link to the work that the teacher is doing in a more general way. One example that I listed, which might have been appropriate for a London-based SEN/ALN teacher, was "work to develop distinctive teaching approaches to support those pupils with English as an additional language". 

I hope that's helpful but, as the questioner implies, the real solution is not, of course, via individual casework, but to change the basis of our existing performance management system and to break its link with narrow pupil progress and performance pay.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

'Recovery Commissioner' resigns - demand the funding our schools and colleges need

So, having commissioned Sir Kevan Collins to report on the investment needed to (in their words) "catch-up" after the pandemic, the Treasury have refused to foot the bill of £15bn, instead stumping up less than 10% of what was asked for. That's just £6,000 a year for an average primary school.

In response, Collins has resigned, saying "I do not believe it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size".

On this, Collins is of course absolutely correct. But it isn't just the funding for 'recovery' that is woefully inadequate. As the NEU and the School Cuts campaign have been arguing for years, education as a whole needs permanent and ongoing investment to make sure the staffing is in place to make sure all needs are met and our large class sizes are reduced.

Expert analysis shows that schools and colleges have suffered from years of real-term spending cuts. Many schools have been announcing further job cuts for the end of this academic year, with support staff posts particularly vulnerable. The pandemic has also hit the Early Years sector particularly hard whilst the critical underfunding of SEND budgets has only got worse. 

Is an extended school day the best use of increased funds?

Given our long-standing campaign for increased education spending, it is laughable that Tory Minister Nadhim Zahawi  has tried to blame teaching unions for Collins' resignation! Zahawi complains that unions "resisted the idea of extending the school day in the first place". But there's no contradiction between questioning the extension of the school day and demanding proper investment in quality education.

Making tired children sit in class, or with tutors, for even longer days of "catch-up cramming" isn't what's needed. It could even do more harm than good by driving out any love of learning. 

And, in practice, the pressure to staff an extra half an hour or so on the day would be on existing teachers and support staff. But, (as discussed separately), we are already at breaking point with our existing workload. Proper investment in additional staffing is vitally needed, not cheap-rate tutoring schemes - and that would be best primarily spent on support within the existing school day, rather than in extending it.

First and foremost, class sizes need to be cut. The UK has some of the largest numbers in school classes globally, especially in primary schools:

Cutting class sizes would ensure pupils had more individual attention, and would also reduce teacher workload as well. 

Reducing class sizes and increasing in-class support also ensures that children receive support alongside their peers, rather than being withdrawn from them. This is significant because, rather than mistakenly emphasising so-called 'lost learning' against the demands of a fixed curriculum, the main need for "catch-up" for children who have suffered most in the pandemic is their social skills and general well-being. That's because they have had less opportunity to be able to play and interact with their peers.

So, while some additional high quality individual or small group tutoring might be needed, maximising learning within the whole-class setting has important advantages for learning in a wider sense. There's also a need for schools to be able to provide greater pastoral support, with additional mentors and counsellors as well, particularly to support mental health.

These are decisions that schools should be given the flexibility to decide as best meets their circumstances  but, above all, with the funding necessary to be able to meet those needs.

No to schools operating longer 'exam factory' shifts

If schools are going to offer extended sessions, then they should not be focussed on formal learning but instead offer after-school opportunities for children to interact and play with their peers in a different way. After-school sessions should concentrate on activities such as sport, drama, art and music that many families cannot afford to pay for their children to participate in. Staffing should be recruited additionally, rather than increasing existing staff workload further.

Sadly, Williamson and the Treasury's actions over the last 24 hours confirm that they aren't interested in genuinely investing in the future. Instead they are looking to get by on the cheap by trying to force overworked staff and stressed students to simply work for longer. Together, parents, staff and students must say no - and unions prepare action to oppose any attempt to impose a further worsening of conditions.

Indeed, we should go further and demand the additional investment our schools and colleges need and a new National Contract for all staff that includes trade-union negotiated class size and staffing policies that makes sure there is sufficient staffing in place to meet needs - as well as limiting workload.


Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Prepare action to oppose a damaging increase to the school day

On BBC news this morning, hapless Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed what was already clear to most educators - that he is "enthusiastic" about a permanent extension to the school day. This is a threat that must be taken seriously by the NEU, with plans being made now to oppose it with action if the Tories press ahead with this damaging proposal.

Child-care before genuine education

The Government determination to open schools as fully as possible over the last year, despite their role in transmitting Covid, has already made clear that Ministers, and their big business backers, see schooling as a child-care service as much as an educational one.

Of course, even the education they force on young people and schools is a narrow, 'exam factory' education dominated by high-stakes testing and league tables used to grade students, staff and schools in their corporate vision of an education marketplace. What parents and educators must demand is an end to the exam factory schooling, not making the production-line run for an even longer shift every day!

Williamson's comments came during an interview about the announcement of an extra £1.4 billion for what has been described as 'catch-up' tutoring. Of course, what many children needed to 'catch-up' on above all was a chance to play and interact with peers again, with a focus on their broader well-being and mental health, rather than just additional lesson content. However, even to meet that narrower goal, £1.4 billion works out at about £50 per pupil per year - far less than required to provide sufficient additional staffing, one-to-one and small group support (see update below).

But, instead of proper investment in education, this austerity-minded Government thinks it can do better, for cheaper, by simply extending the school day. In their minds, that means getting more for less out of their workforce and more time to 'fill' children with facts. It is also a regime designed to instil the mentality that they - and their parents - need to spend more time at work, and less time together.

The school day in England is already longer than the global average

Educationally, extending the school day won't help students learn. They, just like the staff teaching them, are exhausted enough at the end of the existing school day, let alone an extended one. Concentration will not be maintained. 

I explained in March in a first post responding to Williamson's suggestion of longer schooling that pupils in England already spend longer in school than the global average. 

OECD (2014): How much time do students spend in the classroom?

Excessive hours are already driving out too many school staff

School staff, of course, already work far too long as well. As budgets tighten further and posts are cut, remaining support staff are being bullied into taking on roles outside their job description and working additional unpaid overtime.  As for teachers, even the Government's own figures show that they are already working over a 50 hour week. 


Send a clear warning - we'll take action if you press ahead 

The time at the end of the existing school day, (when ignorant Ministers like Williamson might think teachers are just heading home), is of course time when teachers are desperately trying to 'catch-up' on at least some of their planning and marking. If they now have to continue teaching for longer, that work will now take up even more of their evening and weekends than it does now.

Excessive workload is already the main reason why so many teachers leave the profession - a staggering third of new entrants within the first five years in the job. These plans will drive even more out of teaching - unless we organise to make sure the Tories' plans are dropped and, instead, action taken to reduce, not increase, workload.

Under current contracts with 1265 hours of 'directed time', school employers could not enforce a longer working day. However, the pressure on staff to do so, including the pressure from performance pay, will still be exerted in some schools. School groups will need to organise firmly to make sure workload isn't increased yet further through 'divide-and-rule' amongst staff. 

If Williamson and Johnson press further with trying to impose additional working hours, such an attack could not be fought school-by-school alone. That's why all teacher unions must make firmly clear that any attempt to impose changed contracts will be strongly fought together.

What I posted in March is even more the case today - "Unions need to boldly respond with a clear warning that, if the Government tries to enforce worse conditions, we will organise national action to defend staff and education".


Read more on martin4dgs.co.uk

UPDATE: 'Recovery Commissioner' resigns - also posted separately here

So, having commissioned Sir Kevan Collins to report on the investment needed to (in their words) "catch-up" after the pandemic, the Treasury have refused to foot the bill of £15bn, instead stumping up less than 10% of what was asked for. That's just £6,000 a year for an average primary school.

In response, Collins has resigned, saying "I do not believe it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size".

On this, Collins is of course absolutely correct. But it isn't just the funding for 'recovery' that is woefully inadequate. As the NEU and the School Cuts campaign have been arguing for years, education as a whole needs permanent and ongoing investment to make sure the staffing is in place to make sure all needs are met and our large class sizes are reduced.

Expert analysis shows that schools and colleges have suffered from years of real-term spending cuts. Many schools have been announcing further job cuts for the end of this academic year, with support staff posts particularly vulnerable. The pandemic has also hit the Early Years sector particularly hard whilst the critical underfunding of SEND budgets has only got worse. 

Is an extended school day the best use of increased funds?

Given our long-standing campaign for increased education spending, it is laughable that Tory Minister Nadhim Zahawi has tried to blame teaching unions for Collins' resignation! Zahawi complains that unions "resisted the idea of extending the school day in the first place". But there's no contradiction between questioning the extension of the school day and demanding proper investment in quality education.

Making tired children sit in class, or with tutors, for even longer days of "catch-up cramming" isn't what's needed. It could even do more harm than good by driving out any love of learning. 

And, in practice, the pressure to staff an extra half an hour or so on the day would be on existing teachers and support staff. But, (as discussed above), we are already at breaking point with our existing workload. Proper investment in additional staffing is vitally needed, not cheap-rate tutoring schemes - and that would be best primarily spent on support within the existing school day, rather than in extending it.

First and foremost, class sizes need to be cut. The UK has some of the largest numbers in school classes globally, especially in primary schools:

Cutting class sizes would ensure pupils had more individual attention, and would also reduce teacher workload as well. 

Reducing class sizes and increasing in-class support also ensures that children receive support alongside their peers, rather than being withdrawn from them. This is significant because, rather than mistakenly emphasising so-called 'lost learning' against the demands of a fixed curriculum, the main need for "catch-up" for children who have suffered most in the pandemic is their social skills and general well-being. That's because they have had less opportunity to be able to play and interact with their peers.

So, while some additional high quality individual or small group tutoring might also be needed, maximising learning within the whole-class setting has important advantages for learning in a wider sense. There's also a need for schools to be able to provide greater pastoral support, with additional mentors and counsellors as well, particularly to support mental health.

These are decisions that schools should be given the flexibility to decide as best meets their circumstances  but, above all, with the funding necessary to be able to meet those needs.

No to schools operating longer 'exam factory' shifts

If schools are going to offer extended sessions, then they should not be focussed on formal learning but instead offer after-school opportunities for children to interact and play with their peers in a different way. After-school sessions should concentrate on activities such as sport, drama, art and music that many families cannot afford to pay for their children to participate in. Staffing should be recruited additionally, rather than increasing existing staff workload further.

Sadly, Williamson and the Treasury's actions over the last 24 hours confirm that they aren't interested in genuinely investing in the future. Instead they are looking to get by on the cheap by trying to force overworked staff and stressed students to simply work for longer. Together, parents, staff and students must say no - and unions prepare action to oppose any attempt to impose a further worsening of conditions.

Indeed, we should go further and demand the additional investment our schools and colleges need and a new National Contract for all staff that includes trade-union negotiated class size and staffing policies that makes sure there is sufficient staffing in place to meet needs - as well as limiting workload.