by Sean Meleady

Norfolk-based education workers belonging to the National Education Union (NEU) have won a hard-won victory, after working with other trade unionists across England to force the government to close schools to the majority of students. This follows a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, particularly amongst school-aged children.

Whilst the government had initially declared that it was safe to reopen all schools following the Christmas holidays, the reopening of secondary schools was delayed until mid-January. However, the government continued to insist into early January that primary schools could open safely. This was in spite of the fact that, on 22 December, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had concluded that it would be ‘highly unlikely’ that the number of cases could be brought down if schools remained open to all pupils. 

Image credit (NEU)

On 2 January, the NEU’s National Executive Committee came to the decision that they should advise members working in primary schools that they could write to their employers, using section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, indicating that they did not feel safe coming to work. This was reaffirmed at an online meeting the following day, which became the largest trade union meeting in history, with over 400,000 taking part

Although some primary schools did reopen on Monday 4 January, many across the country, including in Norfolk, decided not to. Later that evening, Boris Johnson announced a third national lockdown, expected to last until at least mid-February. It was also announced that schools would be closed to all but the children of key workers and children classed as vulnerable.  

Gawain Little, a Norfolk primary school teacher and member of the NEU National Executive Committee, argued that the union’s campaign may have been crucial:

Had we not taken this decision, schools across Norfolk would be under pressure to stay open while virus rates were going through the roof. It shows how much our members care about their own safety and the safety of their community, but also the positive relationship we have with school leaders.

Little also points out that Norfolk NEU has a positive relationship with Norfolk County Council, explaining, “We’ve been able to work well with the local authority and it was clear on Sunday (3 January) that they would respect and support the decisions made by school leaders.”

Norfolk NEU

“One of the things that this crisis has shown,” Little further argued, “is that local authorities have been weakened by academisation, defunding, cutting of their services and austerity. We want to see stronger local authorities that we can work with to deliver the type of education children in Norfolk deserve.”

Needless to say, the closure of schools to most pupils created a host of challenges for educational professionals, who have had to adapt at short notice to the requirements of online learning. Often forgotten about in many analyses, supply teachers are especially likely to be adversely affected by schools not being fully open. Little argues this is due to the reliance on private agencies:

Supply Teachers should be able to access furlough through their agency or umbrella company. Many agencies are not offering furlough and I think that’s really disgraceful. In a local authority supply pool you could plan that a particular teacher is going to work with a particular school, completely eliminating the risk of school to school transmission. Agencies should have no place creaming the profits off the education of our children.

When schools reopened for the majority of children last September, the government opposed mass testing in schools, based upon SAGE advice that testing should be focused on those with symptoms. However, with increasing rates of infection in schools, this position was reversed last month. Little argues that the plans were rushed and unfeasible:

Putting mass testing in schools is more than simply getting a load of lateral flow test kits out to the schools. It’s about putting a plan in place about what are the best tests to be administered and recruiting staff to administer them.

“When you’ve got Jeremy Hunt calling for school safety before the leader of the Labour Party, you’ve really got to wonder what’s happened to the Labour Party.”

It isn’t merely the government who come in for criticism from Little, however, who argues that the response from the national leadership of the Labour Party has been disappointing: 

The response from the national leadership of the Labour Party was incredibly poor and I’d go as far as to say abysmal. When you’ve got Jeremy Hunt calling for school safety before the leader of the Labour Party, you’ve really got to wonder what’s happened to the Labour Party. It looked from the outside that Keir Starmer was trying to do anything he could to avoid talking about schools.

In sharp contrast, Little praised Norfolk Labour as “fantastic”, having received “consistent support from Clive Lewis” and “constant calls from Labour Party members and activists”. Little, who is standing to be the NEU’s next Deputy General Secretary, also warned that it is likely that we will see a “digital divide” developing between those students who have access to the internet during school closures and those who don’t, laying the blame “squarely at the door of this government. They failed to get laptops to the most deprived students who really need them and I think that’s disgraceful.” He continued,

During the last general election there was a proposal from the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn that everybody in this country would have access to broadband. At the time those people in the House of Commons said this idea was ridiculous. Well, here we are: our children’s education relies on them engaging digitally and this government is entirely responsible.

Prioritising the vaccination of education workers has been touted as a possible solution to enable the safe full reopening of schools. However, Little argues this needs to be balanced with the need to protect the most vulnerable: 

I wouldn’t be arguing that educators should be vaccinated before the most vulnerable in our society. Ultimately we’ve got to do what’s best for the whole of society and ultimately that means prioritising those people whose lives are at risk.

It’s fitting that in the county where the Burston School Strike (the longest strike in history) took place, trade unionists in Norfolk are working together to help keep their communities safe. At Burston, it was children who walked out to support their sacked teachers. This time around, Norfolk NEU members are working from home to help support communities during this critical phase of the pandemic. 

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