empty school classroom Empty school classroom: Wikimedia

After being told to return kids to schools, Parents and Unions had other ideas, finds Tony Dowling

After claiming at his last press conference that all five of the government’s tests for easing the lockdown “are being met”, Boris Johnson went on to say “we will now reopen schools to more children.” 

He claimed that:

on Monday (1st June) we will start … by reopening nurseries and other early years settings and reception, year one and year six in primary schools.

However, despite Johnson’s best efforts to push schools to reopen and to encourage parents and carers to return their children to schools under duress, it is clear that very many are not convinced of the trustworthiness of his exhortations and have rejected his appeals by keeping their children at home today.

Understandably, many parents and carers will have welcomed the opportunity for their children’s education to resume. 

But it is also clear that very many parents, carers and pupils have been unconvinced by Johnson’s bluster with even the BBC reporting a very mixed local picture in how schools are reopening, in some areas schools remain shut, and “up to 50% of pupils will not return today.”

It is credit to the National Education Union’s extraordinary efforts to seek agreed safe conditions before the wider reopening of schools that so many have resisted government pressure and are delaying the return of pupils.

The union’s report on Sunday that four prominent members of the Government’s own scientific advisory body broke ranks to express worries about the safety of wider primary school opening was a key moment.

But crucially, the union has also done an amazing job of organising its Reps and members through Zoom meetings and conferences, building the confidence of school groups to meet and reach agreement with under-pressure headteachers about what would be acceptable circumstances for pupils to return – and when. With many schools opting to stagger opening this week or delaying by another week or even two!

As the NEU said: the Government took a nationwide decision to close all schools except to vulnerable children and children of key workers. But, when it comes to wider opening, responsibility is being left with individual schools and their hardworking head teachers. 

Joint General Secretary Mary Bousted said:

The Government’s plans on reopening schools since they were first produced on May 12 have been changed 41 times. And that’s because they’ve constantly had to be revised as things they have forgotten, things they didn’t know, and things they got wrong had to be added in. That’s hugely added to the stresses of school leaders and teachers, because we have a Government simply who they think is just making it up as it goes along.

The scale of the NEU’s efforts can perhaps be measured by there being over 60 local authorities which have either declined to open schools or publicly challenged the government’s plans and offered support to headteachers to make their own decisions.

And there are the many reports received by joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney from union reps and schools such as:

Our local primary was going to open tomorrow but said yesterday they were postponing until 15th. Local NEU has been really active in advocating sensible decisions to school and LA.

Hearing of schools which sent out messages yesterday saying because of the science they are delaying their opening.

We have 254 schools in Durham closed till the 15th.

PM says primaries open to R, Y1 and Y6 from 1 June. It would now appear that there is not one school in North Somerset where that is happening. Most no kids at all till 8 June earliest.

Many parents and carers, too, have been wary of returning. One posted on facebook:

As a parent I feel it’s my responsibility to not increase the burden on school staff by returning my child to school until it’s actually safe to do so. Those that have to have their children in school I fully understand but I don’t and won’t increase risks to anyone unnecessarily. I’m actually gutted for those who have no choice because they have to return to work. This must be a terrible time for them feeling guilty and having to go against their instincts to keep their child safe

And there have even been organised campaigns. Corinne Pearson set up a ‘York Parents Boycott York Schools Wider Opening in June’ group on facebook. Parents have been sharing photographs of their children’s shoes with accompanying messages about why they will not return to school today.

Corinne herself posted this morning:

Solidarity with all teaching staff, students and parents today. Be brave, keep fighting, we are with you.

And in Newcastle Jos Forester-Melvile, who refused to send her children back to school today posted:

I am honestly so infuriated at the government right now. I resent having to be in a position where I don’t feel comfortable to allow my kids to meet in a park with other kids because the government have irresponsibly said it’s fine. I worry for my sister who works in a school and friends who are teachers and for the teachers in my kids schools and others around the country.

Johnson’s plans for the opening schools today have been demonstrably defeated. And whilst perhaps not a complete victory, the scale of resistance and the lessons for campaigning and organisation shown by the NEU and others point to the hope that we can build on this to reshape schools education and wider society in a post-Coronavirus world. 

With a reported 20,000 new members and a thousand new reps, the NEU has certainly demonstrated the benefit of serious campaigning. “Another education” is now a possibility!

Tony Dowling

Tony Dowling is a teacher, socialist, trade unionist, antifascist, anti-war & anti-cuts activist. He is currently chair of North East People's Assembly and a member of Counterfire.

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