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Classroom. Photo: Creative Commons

Classroom. Photo: Creative Commons

As the government moves towards lifting lockdown, Alex Kenny from the National Education Union executive explains why school staff are not returning until it is safe

It feels as if getting the schools to re-open is central to the government push to get us back to work. How are union members responding?

The first thing I should say is that teachers and school support staff have been working really hard throughout this lockdown to support children and their families.

That work has included volunteering to be on a rota so that children of key workers can be in school, working at home to provide learning opportunities for children at home, or making sure that vulnerable children and families are getting the support they need.

So, when I say that we are watching the steady drip of news stories with a degree of anxiety and concern it should not be taken as indicating that we don’t want to return to work - that is not what we are saying at all. Teachers want to be back in work as it soon as it safe for them and the children. At the moment I think we are far from convinced.

What are teachers' main concerns?

Teachers and other school staff are concerned for their safety, the safety of their loved ones and the safety of children and the wider community. Watching the way the government has handled this crisis, they are not confident that a decision to reopen schools in June will be based on sound scientific evidence and modelling.

Many teachers live with elderly parents so they will be concerned about infecting them if they are travelling to work, being in school and then travelling home again.

They are also concerned about what measures can be put in place for social distancing in schools – has anyone tried getting a group of five year olds to remain two metres apart?

There are real concerns that if we reopen too soon it will just lead to an upturn in the number of cases, particularly amongst school staff. So far the infection, and death rate, amongst school staff is relatively low compared to others, because schools have minimised the risk.

What are your feelings about the government’s wider response to the pandemic? 

To call it shambolic would suggest that they don’t know what they are doing, I think they knew exactly what they wanted to do but have come unstuck.

They have lied and evaded key questions throughout this, thinking they could get by with a combination of invoking the spirit of the Blitz and Boris Johnson’s devil may care attitude. They went into lockdown too late and now seem far too keen on coming out too early. People are not fools and I think they can see that the death toll is too high and could have been avoided.

The NEU played an important part in getting schools closed in the first place. What position is the union taking over school reopening?

Throughout this we have demanded that the government provide us with evidence and modelling to support their position. So when they wanted to keep schools open we demanded that they show us the evidence – we think that position led them to closing schools earlier than they wanted.

We are doing the same now. We have said schools should reopen when it is safe and we need evidence to show that.

We have set five tests for the government, which you can see on our website.

These tests have been well supported by our members and by the Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey in Parliament.

We have used a model letter which NEU Reps have signed saying that, “we will return to work when our union tells us that it is safe”, this is being sent to employers, councillors and MPs by local branches.

Our petition calling for schools to reopen only when it is safe now has 300,000 signatures so we think public opinion is on our side.

I think the government has yet to decide what to do so we are using the next few days to try and influence things.

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The NEU has had a high profile during the crisis - how has it been organising during the lockdown? 

From the start, we decided that we needed to be as close to decision making at every level  - government council and workplace.

So, as well as doing the big picture high profile work, we have consciously taken an organising approach to this, giving Reps and members advice and guidance to use in discussion in schools and colleges.

In some cases our advice went further than that of the government – for example we said anyone who lives with a vulnerable person should be at home – and we have been able to hold that line.

This approach has been really effective with members all over the country quoting “NEU guidance” and winning the position. It has been really encouraging to see the extent to which members have identified with, and followed, the Union’s position.

We have used digital media really well – our joint general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted have held a series of ‘town hall” phone calls with thousands of members and Zoom meetings have been held with workplace Reps, local officers, supply teachers, schools leaders, health and safety Reps and so on.

I think this period has demonstrated to a lot of people the importance of being in a trade union and we have had record numbers of people checking in on our union advice – on a local level our branch emails have doubled their opening rate – and this is something we want to build on.

As a result of our work, the NEU has recruited over 7,000 new members and 600 new school reps since the beginning of March – and we have set up an instant online training course of these new Reps.

Before this crisis, we had already begun discussions in the NEU about how we face up the challenges we will face from a Johnson government. Part of that was about a strategic turn to workplaces organising. In some respects the work we have done recently demonstrates both the importance and effectiveness of this approach.

I am really proud of the work we have done as a union, which I think puts us in a strong position to face the future.

What is going to happen when schools do return to normal?

Well, I don’t think we can return to normal in the sense of business as usual. I think this crisis has shone a light on some major faults in our society which need fixing – homelessness, the housing market, health services, social care, levels of domestic abuse, the gig economy, outsourcing of public services – it’s a long list and I think people can begin to see where our priorities should lie once we come out.

The same is very much true of education where we have a system of high-accountability and low trust that places immense pressure on teachers and children and suck all the joy out of teaching and learning.

So we want to use the transition out of the lockdown to campaign for an end to the exam factory model of education. We are using the phrase “transition not catch up” to describe what we think should happen when schools do begin to reopen and we want to use that period to argue for something different. There can no sense that we can just put children back in classrooms and start up as though nothing has happened. Many children will have suffered trauma and there will be a real sense of dislocation, schools will need to put counselling in place amongst other things.

The world has been turned upside down in the last six weeks and we can’t just return to business as usual.

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