Boris Johnson. Photo: Flickr/Number10 Boris Johnson. Photo: Flickr/Number10

Teachers and parents have successfully pushed the government back, writes Shabbir Lakha

The government’s u-turn on forcing all primary schools to open in June is a crushing defeat and it comes at the hands of teachers and parents. Boris Johnson’s announcement that Early Years, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 students would be made to go back to school on 1st June was met with wide-scale opposition, and it ultimately failed.

On Monday 1st June, only a quarter of the children meant to be in schools – including children of key workers that had already been going in throughout the lockdown – were in schools. The National Education Union mounted a concerted opposition campaign which put forward five tests that would need to be passed by the government in order for it to be safe for teachers and children to be back in school.

Despite the demonisation of the NEU and teachers by Tory politicians and the mainstream press, the position was very clearly backed by the majority of teachers, parents, and the general public. In the two weeks after Johnson’s announcement, the NEU gained over 20,000 new members, several hundreds of new union reps, and was organising regular Zoom calls with thousands. At least 60 councils around the country rejected the government’s proposals and asked schools to remain shut, and ultimately a wholesale boycott by parents put a nail in the government’s plans.

It was never safe to reopen schools and the measures being put in place were widely criticised as being impossible to enforce and damaging to children’s mental health. After last week’s announcement that face coverings would become mandatory on public transport, the notion that teachers would have to be in confined classrooms without any protection became all the more nonsensical. Several schools that partially reopened on 1st June had to close within days because of an outbreak of Covid among teachers.

So the government having to concede that most primary school children will not be going back to school before September at the earliest, is a victory for teachers and parents which will undoubtedly save lives, and it shows the power of organising.

The fight is not over, however. Teachers in most schools remain on notice for potentially opening schools to more children, including secondary schools which are due to be reopened next week. There has been no proper guidance given on how this would be achievable, and the vagueness of the ‘flexibility’ for schools is causing confusion on what schools and teachers are expected to do.

As a teacher friend of mine told me: “There’s so much time being taken up, planning for going back for the sake of a month, and there’s no discussions about what conversations we’re going to have with the children, the mental health impacts on them and also the trauma a lot of them are facing, particularly our black students.”

It’s been clear from the start that the government hasn’t cared in the slightest about the wellbeing of the children. It has always been about allowing parents to get back to work, and it’s in line with the rest of the measures to ease the lockdown for the sake of profits. There is no good reason why non-essential retail shops, or construction sites of luxury apartments and offices or farmers markets should be opened when the rate of transmission of the virus is as high as it is, and getting higher.

So we have to continue supporting the NEU’s campaign, and the wider campaign against lifting the lockdown before it’s safe. Teachers and parents have shown us that when we organise together we can win.

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.