According to the Daily Mail on 27 June, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson used a speech to Tory backbenchers to describe the largest and most vocal schools union, the National Education Union (NEU), as “the No Education Union”.
This follows attempts by Boris Johnson to blame the NEU for the low numbers of children returning to school after 1 June, the date announced as the start of wider reopening. The government know there is huge frustration at the lengthy closure of schools and the lack of any clear idea as to when that might change. They understand the risk that, if parents blame them for this, the electoral damage could be catastrophic. It’s hugely important that the blame is directed elsewhere and the obvious place is the education unions, most of all the NEU.
There are significant problems with this, however, and they are growing. The low number of children returning to eligible year groups since 1 June is a telling indication of the Tories’ failure. It's not credible to blame the unions for this, and it won’t be believed. The fact is that the government have not convinced parents that they have sufficient control of the virus for schools to be safe.
Children may be less likely to suffer Covid-19 symptoms but they return to the homes of family members who don’t have that relative advantage. Enough parents and families don’t want to take that risk. That’s not because of the NEU having influence on them. It’s because they don’t trust the government.
The bigger problem is that, despite a series of ad hoc announcements and promises, the government have completely failed to deliver. Worse than that they have failed even to come up with any detailed plan for the reopening of schools. This was true ahead of 1 June. It has been repeated when statements have been made about summer and September. They have u-turned on a plan to have all primary pupils in this term.
Johnson said on Wednesday 10 June that the government would be “doing a huge amount of catch up for pupils over the summer”. He gave no details and said there would be an announcement the following week.
On 19 June the government announced a £1bn fund to help England’s children catch up on what they have missed while schools have been closed The most disadvantaged pupils would have access to tutors through a £350m National Tutor Plan programme. But the statement made clear that this was intended “over the year from September”.
Primary and secondary schools will be given £650m to spend on one-to-one or group tuition for any pupils they think need it. That’s £80 per pupil. This £650m will go direct to schools, It will not be weighted towards those with the most pupils in the greatest need. All schools will get exactly the same per-pupil funding.
The announcement did not include any specific push towards catch-up activities running through the summer break, except an expectation that the usual summer clubs would be running. Schools minister Nick Gibb told the BBC there was leeway for heads to set up summer schemes if they so wished.
In short, there is no visible plan to have schools open or staff working over the summer. Nor is there any alternative plan or resourcing for other workers, volunteers and supply teachers to be used to provide activities.
While this chaos reigns at government level, the only organisation to make any concrete proposals for provision for children and young people has, in fact, been the NEU. Earlier in June the union issued a ten-point “education recovery plan” which included:
• Free school meals must be provided over the summer holidays
• Local authorities must be funded to make a summer holiday offer to children and young people. They should coordinate the planning of summer holiday clubs, particularly in areas of deprivation, with places for those on Free School Meals fully funded by Government
• Public buildings, such as libraries and sports halls, civic centres and religious buildings, should be used to expand the space available to schools so that social distancing can be achieved
• Children and young people living in poverty and low-income households must be given the resources they need to learn at home, including access to books and creative resources, as well as technology
• A fully resourced national plan for children’s wellbeing should be launched to support children who suffered trauma in the pandemic.
The irony of the insults thrown at the education unions is that the NEU is the only organisation to make any serious proposals for education and vulnerable children (the Labour front bench has made none, too), and the union has got this one right.
Talk of “catch-up” is not what is needed here. What all children will need, but especially the most disadvantaged, is recovery.
• Patrick Murphy is a member of the National Education Union executive, writing here in a personal capacity