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:


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.