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. 

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