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Latest on schools reopening: NEU checklist falls short of what’s needed

The phrase “too little, too late” comes to mind when talking about the latest National Education Union (NEU) checklist for risk assessments ahead of a wider opening of schools in September. It was sent to reps at 6.45pm on Friday 10th July, by which time some schools had already broken up and others had just a week left. The reason given for this was that we were waiting for the sign off from the other education unions. This is always a dangerous approach as the pace is dictated by the slowest moving wagon. Much was made in June of the fact that the NAHT signed the previous checklist which could be used, particularly in primary schools, to shape the approach of heads as their union would be calling for the same things we were. This time only NEU, GMB, Unite and UNISON have agreed it. Whilst this is an important coalition, was this really worth waiting so long for when many Heads have already drawn up their plans for September?

There is no mention of the #FiveTests, a central part of the Union’s campaign when wider opening was threatened in late May and early June. While we have argued consistently that the Five Tests do not go far enough, they were a positive starting point: now it seems that they have been unceremoniously dropped. The power of having the Five Tests as our criteria was that we have clear demands that must be met, regardless of the situation with the virus. It means we have the basis to fight for control over our workplaces rather than reacting to DfE advice.

The checklist also does not mention that schools should be closed immediately if there are confirmed cases of Covid-19, or address the need for safe staffing levels and class sizes. The checklist doesn’t give sufficient guidance around those staff who were previously shielding and puts the onus on the NEU rep to agree individual risk assessments with the employer rather than using the collective strength of the 450,000+ members to win a guarantee nationally that those shielding can be given the option of continuing to work from home. Fundamentally the checklist accepts the DfE guidance as gospel and asks how it can be implemented, rather than challenging the guidance itself.

The rank and file of the Union must now work with other unions in schools, particularly those representing support staff, to develop our own strategy for safety, using what we can from the current checklist but developing local demands. This should use the #FiveTests as a starting point, with additional criteria including very low transmissions in a district before a school can open, and immediate closure if a positive case of Covid-19 is confirmed. The use of Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to refuse to enter an unsafe workplace must be on the table, along with balloting for industrial action locally and nationally to ensure that no-one is forced into dangerous working conditions.

We should be fighting for a patient phased return of students, one year group or class bubbles added at a time and this plan being scaled up only when the system is functioning successfully for those within school and on the agreement of union reps. This would mean continuing with blended learning and phasing that out gradually.

The checklist mentions directed time and workload but again agreements will have to be made at local level to ensure the staggered start and end times can be accommodated within 1265 hours of directed time. This may mean major changes to how meetings are conducted, lesson loading or the school year itself are structured. There will be many heads and MAT CEOs who will want to use the crisis to tear up hard won conditions.

Workers must be in control of when and how schools come back in September. School staff, children and families should not be sacrificed for sake of the economy.

Resist the Tories’ unsafe ‘back to school’ drive

The Tories’ announcement today of a potentially widespread opening of primary schools from 1 June to increased pupil numbers, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, has been met with shock and anger from educators, parents, carers and school students. Transmission rates and deaths remain high, but as part of their plan to reopen businesses the Tories are putting our lives on the line for profits.

It is clear that there is widespread opposition to reopening schools. Almost 370,000 people have signed the National Education Union (NEU) petition calling for schools not to reopen until it is safe, and a survey by Parentkind of over 250,000 parents found that ‘the vast majority of parents do not want to see their children return to school immediately’. Last night the NEU’s website crashed after it was inundated with a flurry of applications to join the union from teachers furious about the announcement and clearly anxious to get organised.

The leadership of the NEU has put forward the #FiveTests for safety before schools are reopened: a ‘much lower’ number of Covid-19 cases, a plan for social distancing, access to regular testing, protocols for isolation when cases of Covid-19 are detected, and protections for vulnerable staff and their families, as well as children’s families. These tests are a good starting point, although they do not go far enough. What constitutes a ‘much lower’ number of cases should be clearly defined, and reaching a close-to-zero transmission rate is achievable as has been shown in South Korea and New Zealand. In addition, the proposal for ‘school-by-school negotiation’ could, in practice, lead to individual schools – particularly academies – being isolated without support from the union. However, even with those limitations, these tests have not been met. Teachers will be asking how on earth it will be possible for social distancing measures to be upheld, for example, especially when the government’s plan applies first to the very youngest children.

A statement from NASUWT rightly opposed schools reopening before September, and a further joint statement from six trade unions representing educators set out necessary conditions for safety before schools return. The NEU and other unions should now hold a ballot on industrial action as a matter of urgency. This could be in place by September 1st, in time for the return from summer holidays, and be used to control how schools operate at that time. Until then, as educators and children are faced with going back into unsafe environments in a few weeks, the widespread use of Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (which gives workers the right to refuse to enter unsafe workplaces) will be necessary. The right-wing in the unions may be opposed to this, but the health and safety of educators, children and families must come first. Reps on the ground should be supported by the unions in defending members.

Workers should be in control of when and how lockdown is eased, including the reopening of workplaces such as schools. We know what is needed in our workplaces and whether they’re safe or not. The experts on education and schools aren’t in the Cabinet office, they’re in the classroom! We can’t trust this shambolic government to manage reopening; they’ve missed targets on testing, they provided inadequate PPE and their failed ‘herd immunity’ strategy may have cost thousands of lives.

The overwhelming response to a survey by Parentkind shows the strength of the opposition to reopening among parents: 90% of parents did not want schools to reopen as soon as lockdown ends, with 40% not wishing to consider a timeframe until safety is assured, and a further 10% saying they would wait 12-18 months for children and educators to be vaccinated before they would be happy for their child to return to school. Parents should organise and refuse to send their children to school. Parents and carers opposed to school reopening can sign this statement, produced by activists in the Education Solidarity Network, saying that they will not send their children back until it is safe. The general secretary of the NAHT has said that schools should not be expected to issue fines to parents who don’t send their children to school – other unions should take the same position, and if fines are issued parents who cannot or will not pay the fine should be supported.

Educators, children and their families have already died from Covid-19, and we will not let the Tories put our lives on the line without a fight!