By a primary school teacher and NEU activist in Lewisham.
On 30 May, four scientists from the government’s SAGE advisory group went public saying that the Tories’ easing of the lockdown, including the wider opening of schools, is unwise at this time.
The number of cases and the infection rate are still high, and we don’t know whether or how much children can spread the virus.
As I write on 1 June, the wider opening of schools planned by the Tories for today looks ragged. In Wales schools are not going back. The Assembly has set no date for a return. In Scotland schools will return from 11 August (the regular start to the school year there); Northern Ireland will have a phased return from mid-August.
Many councils across England have come out against a wider opening on 1 June. Some school leaderships won’t open out even where the local council has not come out against 1 June; some will open out their schools in areas where the councils have come out against 1 June.
The government’s plan was that primaries and nursery schools would open to nursery, reception, year 1, and year 6. Even where there is wider opening, it is often not to all those year groups, or all within those year groups.
The largest school workers’ union, the National Education Union (NEU), has run a propaganda and lobbying campaign against wider opening on 1 June. It has been effective up to a point, though its selective use of statistics to back its case is not a model to be followed.
It has failed to develop an appropriate industrial strategy to embolden its members on the ground. It has developed a joint union checklist for reps and activists to use to ensure a safer opening when it is appropriate, or more likely where we can’t stop it happening. It has discussed the use of Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which gives workers a legal right to withdraw from work areas of “serious and imminent danger”, but not loudly and not with much conviction.
There is now clear guidance on the union’s website on how to escalate through to advising members of their rights under Section 44, should risk assessments not be appropriate and the checklist not be met, but it was posted only on 28 May.
The union wrote to all primary heads on 27 May arguing for a delay until the 15 June. They based that date on the suggestion in the Independent SAGE group’s report that it might be safer.
There is little clarity on the Independent SAGE group’s calculations about 15 June, and what the letter effectively did was undermine those fighting for schools not to open wider until later — start of the new school year, like Italy or Spain or Scotland — by setting a date that has now become the benchmark.
It also torpedoed resistance to wider opening in secondaries. The government wants secondaries to start face to face meetings with Year 10 and 12 pupils from 15 June. By accepting primaries could go back by the 15th, the union has tacitly accepted the government’s programme for secondary reopening.
Despite the significant problems in the NEU’s national approach, it is at least visible, clear and attempting to address the real concerns that school workers are facing. This has led to growth.
Since the crisis has begun the union has recruited 2,000 new reps and 20,000 new members, 9,000 of whom are support staff members. This takes the support staff membership up to 38,000, comparable to Unite’s membership in schools. That should end the TUC agreement for the NEU not to have negotiating rights for or actively recruit support staff members. The industrial logic of one school workers’ union is unfolding before our eyes.