The last few days have seen a monumental battle between hundreds of thousands of teachers and support staff – members of the biggest education union, the National Education Union (NEU) – and the Tory government. Boris Johnson has yet again been forced into a massive U-turn, announcing on Monday 4 January at 8pm that a new lockdown would be put in place with school closures in England.
Only 24 hours earlier, he was claiming schools were safe. Now he is forced to admit that schools were “vectors of transmission” of the virus – something that we all knew months ago. There was a palpable explosion of relief and celebration from education staff that this decision was made. WhatsApp groups of education workers shared the growing expectations of the announcement.
But there was also great anger and sadness. There are growing reports of more deaths of teachers and support staff as well as staff that have been left seriously ill and unable to work because of Covid. The true scale of this is unknown because the government has refused to make public the actual statistics, even if it has them! The loss of family members is also more widely shared on social media groups.
For months, Socialist Party members in the NEU were campaigning to prepare the membership for a national strike ballot to force increased safety in schools in order to protect communities.
Keeping schools fully open has nothing to do with keeping children safe. Instead, it has put more lives in danger, more pressure on an overwhelmed NHS, more chaotic disruption in schools.
With Covid cases rising rapidly during the autumn term in the north of England and the Midlands, the national union leadership prevaricated at every turn. Despite growing evidence that school-aged children have high levels of infection, and that poorly ventilated, closely packed schools have been an important factor in the spread of Covid-19.
The more recent rapid rise in outbreaks in London and the south east, spreading quickly to other areas, and the identification of a new more transmissible variant of the virus, has scared education staff.
Even the government’s own scientific advisers warned ministers that “accumulating evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open”. Yet the Department for Education still insisted on bullying councils like Greenwich into keeping their schools open. Now these bullies are being held to account.
Insisting workers enter an unsafe workplace, and without risk assessments in place that address the new dangers from the new variant, is a breach of health and safety. That’s why the NEU executive met in emergency session on Saturday 2 January.
The NEU agreed to call on all members in primary, nursery and special schools to exercise their rights under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to refuse to work in unsafe workplaces. The union would support them in doing so, including through balloting for industrial action if necessary. The full opening of secondary schools had already been delayed by a week.
This action was unprecedented. Staff were relieved that at last they were starting to fight back against a government that refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. 400,000 joined the online mass members’ meeting later that day – what has to be one of the biggest trade union meetings in history.
In Coventry, we had two further members’ meetings – over 300 at each. This has been replicated across the country. Union membership has increased, and more school reps have stepped forward to support their members. Members are more combative.This is hugely positive. The union must make sure that it harnesses that willingness to fight.
By Sunday 3 January, staff had sent in their Section 44 letters to headteachers, and many primary schools started to report they were closed. Some councils expressed support for the action against the government which, in turn, gave a boost to more staff to submit their letters. It was frantic. WhatsApp groups were busy answering questions and building confidence for members.
Throughout Monday 4 January, pressure increased on the government. Even former Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt called for a lockdown including school closures.Education staff felt the endgame was in sight. By 8pm, Boris Johnson confirmed the inevitable.
The dithering of the Labour leadership has seriously damaged their credibility in the eyes of education staff. Keir Starmer called for a lockdown, but to keep schools open.
While the use of Section 44 was, and is, a vital step, we must step up the fight for more secure protection for education staff via an industrial action ballot. The quicker this can be started, the quicker it can be in place. There are still huge issues that must be won, especially on workload and pay. Now the hard work starts on ensuring that we set the terms for this lockdown with secure Covid-free workplaces for staff and pupils.
At the time of writing, the government guidance is far from clear. There are reports of headteachers demanding all staff attend school to deliver remote learning, and high numbers of pupils in school, as well as issues regarding special schools and early years. Members will be advised to insist on a new risk assessment and to make clear that, as long as conditions are safe, they are available to work in school to teach the children of key workers and vulnerable children only (unless at high risk themselves), or otherwise work from home to support remote learning.
By failing to act earlier in this decisive manner, the NEU has left itself with a very short timescale to get its message across to its members and to give them confidence to act. Nevertheless, it is a stand that had to be taken given the serious dangers facing all of us. There is more potential for many members to grow in confidence and have the determination to win.
All education unions must join together with parent groups and the wider trade union movement to ensure that our communities our safe, and that families have the resources to access online learning.
It shows how quickly events can change, and the potential power of workers when they move into action.
Jane Nellist, Coventry NEU member