Covid virus and word Solidarity on Blackboard Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The stand-off between education unions and the government is a battle for us all, argues David Hamet.

Teachers and support staff are once again the frontline of a battle with the government which needs as much support as possible from the rest of the labour movement.  

There has been a dramatic rise in Covid infections over the Christmas period. This makes any full return to face-to-face teaching on Monday, in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces, a catastrophic and deadly policy which needs to be resisted.

The action taken has already been astounding, with 4,000 National Education Union (NEU) reps taking part in a Zoom call on Saturday, and at least 20,000 members registered for one on Sunday.  

Members of Unison and GMB are also part of the fight, and gestures of solidarity have come from other unions such as CWU.  There is also a lot of talk of school boycotts from parents on social media.

The NEU is calling for the postponement of face-to-face teaching (except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers) for at least two weeks.  It has also issued guidance that school staff should not have to return to an unsafe workplace, and where necessary can invoke Section 44 of the Employment Right Act which protects their right to do refuse to do so.

Solidarity with teachers and support staff is especially important given the government and the media’s willingness to attack and demonise them and their unions.

This is why it is worth making clear that the government’s schools policy is in a mess entirely of its own making. After spending the autumn term flouting the advice of educators and scientists, we are now seeing the biggest daily case numbers by far since Covid 19 first hit the UK.

If this government had listened to the NEU or Independent Sage when they called for a circuit breaker for schools; if they had included schools in their half-baked ‘lockdown’ in November; and if they had allowed schools to shut a week early for Christmas, instead of threatening them with legal action, then there is every chance we would not be in the mess we are in now.

The result of this deadly neglect is that we have had a Christmas holiday of panicked measures which could have otherwise been planned. Every step of the way it has been education workers, parents and other workers pushing for swift action to control the pandemic, and it has been ignoring them which has brought disaster.

Gavin Williamson’s announcement, from the safety of a socially distanced parliament, that we should cram into classrooms with 30+ children from Monday onwards, was rightly greeted with widespread outrage.

So much outrage, in fact, that he was forced into a partial retreat almost immediately by delaying all school returns across London for two weeks. This type of U turn characterised the government all through 2020 – a reckless policy clashing immediately with a combination of outrage and desperate reality, leading to a quick reversal.

But this isn’t enough. We know from weeks upon weeks of the government’s failed tier system that localised half measures are simply not effective enough. The virus does not recognise local authority borders.  Cases will mushroom up and down the country if a uniform national policy is not seriously followed in order to suppress the spread of infections.

The arguments made by education staff and parents have been very clear since March – the more infections you have in a school, the more you will find it in the surrounding area. This has always been about protecting entire communities.

What is also particularly worrying is what we are hearing about the new virus strain and the demographic of those infected, with some health workers saying they are seeing more children in the Covid wards than ever.

We need to demand a serious roll-out of the Covid vaccine for education staff. Resources should also be made available for families and schools to to support home learning.

The pathetic lack of opposition from Kier Starmer serves to make it even clearer that it comes down to all of us – whether school staff, parents, carers, or simply concerned members of the community – to develop the most combative response we can to stop this reckless government in its tracks, and impose upon them the solutions that they are clearly incapable of delivering themselves.

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