The National Education Union’s demands for Covid safety in schools have, once again, been totally ignored by Ministers. So, when the NEU National Executive met last week, you might have expected it to have agreed a plan of action to answer this rejection. Sadly not.

Only one motion was put to the meeting, proposed by Nicky Downes (see speech below), one of the NEC members for the West Midlands and a member of the Socialist Party. It called for a disaggregated union-wide ballot for non-strike and strike action to win the union’s Covid safety and workload demands. But the plan was voted down with only six votes in favour.

The overwhelming view on the NEC, apparently vehemently put by some opposing the motion from the Left, not least the SWP, was that members wouldn’t vote for action if a ballot was launched. But, if so, why? It depends on what lead is given.

Yes, there are doubts and concerns that need answering but it depends how you pose the issue to members. Where NEC members had written out opposing a ballot, unsurprisingly they got a response back that reflected the doubts raised by their leadership. Where NEC members gave a lead, and explained why action was necessary, they got support.

Simply concluding that ‘there’s no mood’ leaves us exactly where we are now. Our demands will continue to be ignored. The NEU needs to build and lead struggle as a National Union if it is to successfully challenge the politicians who continue to deny the role that poorly ventilated schools, operating with full classes, are playing in spreading infection.

Instead, the leadership is throwing the responsibility back on members, saying they will support action, but a school group has to call for it. But school-by-school action doesn’t win national demands. Most managements, although certainly not all, have done what they can to try and operate safely, but they can’t solve the lack of testing or stand up alone to Local Authorities and Government insistent on fully open schools. Members feel more confident if they are acting alongside other schools, not on their own. So, yes, where local reps and Officers give a lead, some schools will request a ballot. But we need far more than occasional isolated actions.

This lack of a national strategy existed before Covid, particularly over workload. Again, we were told there’s no mood for a union-wide struggle to win a National Contract. Instead, we’ll support school-by-school action. The same problems arise. As with Covid, Union demands haven’t been met – and excessive workload continues to drive staff out of their jobs.

The National Union can continue to send out petitions, emails, and publicity on social media, but it has no strategy for when they are ignored. Meanwhile, infection rates continue to rise, schools continue to operate in dangerous chaos with staff and students ill or in self-isolation. Union reps and officers are left drowning in individual casework but, without collective action, with limited tools to resolve them. A different strategy is needed.

Martin Powell-Davies (Lancashire NEU member)

Nicky Downes’ speech to the NEU NEC:

“What’s become clear over the past few weeks is that education workers are expendable. The students and the local communities we serve are seen as unworthy of protection whether from a lockdown or a vaccine.

We, as a union, quite rightly called for schools and colleges to be included in this lockdown. But on a national level we had nothing in the back pocket to bargain with. Our only response to this blatant disregard of our members’ safety and the safety of school communities was to lobby.

Lobbying is important and can bring some results, but we are not a pressure group we are a trade union. We’ve seen French education staff strike to close unsafe schools and the London transport workers threaten action and win due to the rising number of bus driver deaths in the first wave.

We have an escalation app and the promise of action in schools where safety is compromised, which is vital. But despite growing numbers of reps being recruited, we still have over half of schools without reps and a fear of going it alone. We need a national response too. We should be standing up to the government and not just to school leaders who often agree with us but are as constrained as we are.

Our most at-risk staff are not being protected, nor are those that shield family members. Nearly every school – Primary, Secondary and Special in Coventry has had positive cases. And our rates of infection are nowhere near that in the Northern regions where the virus is running rampant and unchecked. We have had some success in Coventry, but it’s simply not true that every at-risk staff is working from home. We know that some have not even had their risk assessment updated and some fear asking for working from home as an option. We also have members that have chosen to continue to work in school because they don’t want to work from home. They don’t want the stress of remote learning or the isolation. But they are not safe in school because the infection rates are rising.

We are not protecting our most at-risk pupils or protecting the children of key workers as we did in the first lockdown. So many of our pupils are self-isolating or becoming ill that schools are rarely fully open. Schools were safer for these groups of pupils in the first lockdown than they are now.

We risk leaving our Primary and Special members unprotected. The suggestion is rotas for Secondary but what about all our other schools where social distancing is impossible and infection rates are rising. It has never been true that Primary age children do not transmit or are in, as the media portrays, well-spaced out classrooms with six pupils sat at tables on their own. Our Primary reps are quite rightly asking the question – how are they to be included in a strategy going forward?

But this motion isn’t just about safety. Workload has shot up with blended learning. Learning walks and observations have been reintroduced. It’s very much business as usual and some. The union has successfully employed action short of strike action in the past. Why not look to that again?

At least raise these as options with our members. Let them decide our strategy. I’m glad [some NEC members say they have] spoken to their reps. We all should and do, all of the time. But ask the right question! What should we do when the government says no. No to lockdown of schools, no to rotas, no to nightingale schools? Do we fight this school by school or together? We are elected to lead and fight for our members and we must do that.

These are national issues which require national action. We may have won small victories in some of our schools but what about the rest? We have a strong collective voice of educators it’s time we flex that muscle. Put all the options on the table and ballot our members on both action short of strike action and strike action”.

It’s time to replace those who will not lead

School-by-school action is exhausting for members. They bear the brunt of emotional blackmail by leaderships who take it personally. Members do not feel the solidarity of being part of a nationally led action which would make lasting gains for all.

Individual school action can win gains over single school issues. Unlike those on the NEC that just call for it, Newham NEU is delivering it. We have 2 schools currently on strike, one over an imposed expansion with a proposed building not fit for purpose, the other opposing the summary dismissal of their union rep. But this is NOT the way to defend ourselves against a pandemic, let alone to advance and win the end of toxic testing in an education system exposed under Covid and help do away with excessive workload, Ofsted and league tables.

The strategy of talking members, reps and officers to death on webinars, with no opportunity for members and reps to give reports and ask questions and demand action, is leading to demoralisation. The growth in membership earlier in the year is now being squandered by a leadership afraid to lead.

The current leadership needs to be, and will be, challenged from below by members who are on the frontline. Elections for NEU Deputy General Secretary and the National Executive are coming next year. It’s time to replace those who will not lead!

Louise Cuffaro (Newham NEU)

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