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:

UPDATE: I was able to make many of these points - and more besides (!) - as a guest on this week's "Safe Education for All" broadcast on 'Socialist Telly'. Have a look here:

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.