In almost every primary in Newham, east London, staff voted against increased school attendance and did not go in on Monday 1 June.
The full scale of resistance isn’t always visible. It’s only reception, Year One and Year Six that the government is trying to send back in, so only that section of teachers and learning support assistants (LSAs) is having to disobey right now.
There is a lesson here for other struggles, like Sats boycotts. Where you’ve only got one year group having to say no to something, they can feel they’re out on a limb, and so need special support.
Lots of new members are learning the power of the union. We’ve got great new reps and assistant secretaries coming forward out of this in Newham. They’re the future of the union.
We need to get to governors and parents. One school did a survey and found only 15% of parents were willing to send their children back. Let’s organise to tell the heads to stop reopening.
And Newham’s Labour mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, put out a statement saying she agrees with the NEU’s five tests. But it also says it’s down to individual heads and governing bodies as to whether the schools open.
That is simply unacceptable. Newham has the highest Covid-19 death rate in the country. How dare this Labour council abdicate its duty?
We are resisting school by school because the council hasn’t made a blanket statement not to reopen. There are lots of little victories, but – for now – they are partial victories.
Where schools have insisted on opening on 1 June, the Newham branch of the National Education Union (NEU) has sent ‘Section 44’ letters to the heads. But many schools, under pressure from the union and from parents, have at least agreed to delay partial reopening.
Most of the heads are saying we’re not opening – till 8 June, or 15 June, or 22 June. But it can’t be about arbitrary dates. It has to be about when it’s safe. I don’t believe half the heads want to open – but if left alone under government pressure, they will.
I had one school that was planning to open on 8 June, but the head met us, and agreed she’s not opening before 15 June. And she’s not saying she is opening on 15 June – it depends whether it’s safe. That was a complete turnaround.
A lot of heads are demanding their staff go into school for inset days, to ‘get ready’ for when it’s ‘safe’. Now, that’s a psychological thing. Get ’em in, and once they’re in, they’re in.
But even the government’s (very strange) rules say now, six people can meet, outside. Schools might have a hundred staff! You can’t have them all in. And what for? You can have your meetings online!
One head wondered how she is supposed to ‘get ready’. Well, support the caretakers and cleaners to do their jobs, with PPE and safe distancing. But the teachers and LSAs are not employed to get the place ready. She has now agreed this until Newham NEU says it’s safe.
One head met the NEU and Unison union reps on 1 June and shouted at them, saying she’s not accepting any collective response. She wanted each staff member to phone her individually and tell her if they’re coming in.
The reps stood firm and said we are collective, and we’re telling you people aren’t going in, and that’s all we’re going to say. The governors were against reopening too. Then the head phoned me and told me she is not going to open next week.
It’s a battle of wills. But the reps are very positive, and staff are holding the line, refusing to go in.
Louise Cuffaro, Secretary, NEU Newham
Coventry: Trade union organisation pays off
Building a strong union base in Coventry with many new reps and activists, sharing ideas and supporting each other, has paid off!
From a position where many schools in the city had indicated they were looking at a phased return to school for some year groups in primary from the 2 June, at the time of writing the vast majority of schools remain only open to key workers and vulnerable children.
Unfortunately, our local authority did not take a city-wide position to delay.
Online meetings and regular mailings to members from the local National Education Union (NEU) branch, with very clear messages about union advice, have helped to give confidence to members to challenge schools.
We have been clear to our members: if they feel in imminent danger they have every right to refuse to go in and be protected by Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act. Working with other unions has not always been straightforward but joint work where possible has been successful.
No stone was left unturned. We wrote to chairs of governors warning them of their responsibilities, and challenged the local authority and academy leads.
Working over the weekend to tackle some of the more belligerent school managements was also required, as well as working with reps.
Firm positions on health and safety, and working toward solid risk assessments, have helped to secure a delay. And they have also ensured safer environments for the future – for our members and pupils and, in turn, our communities.
The government has been bombarding schools with advice which changes regularly: it has been an utter disgrace. The pressure that head teachers have been put under has meant that many were relieved they have had extra time to put in place more secure plans.
What has been clear throughout the last couple of months is how important it is to fight for the strengthening of local authorities, where all schools are accountable and under democratic control, ending the chaotic system we have at present.
It’s not over yet. There will be more battles to win, but Coventry NEU is in a good, strong place to face those challenges. We gained at least another week for schools which, given the scale of what we face, has been really positive. But as the science keeps unfolding, we must keep holding the line that there should be no going back until it’s safe!
Nicky Downes and Jane Nellist, Coventry NEU (both personal capacity)
Safety First! Victory in Leicester schools
The very low attendance figures at schools in Leicester are despite the reckless return pushed by the Tory government for the 1 June. Many schools had already postponed starting dates, and this is a small victory. But we need to continue to campaign for no return until it’s safe.
There is still no proper contact tracing in place, and so far none of the National Education Union’s (NEU) five tests have been met.
Parents across the country got organised and formed groups to bolster the confidence of teachers, and show that parents share their concerns. In Leicester, our Safety First campaign now has over 100 members, consisting of local parents and education workers.
We are continuing to build our network to ready ourselves for the fights to come. These will include battles around secondary schools opening, and especially if teachers start needing to withdraw their labour due to health and safety, or if schools are forced to close again due to further Covid outbreaks.
It is vital that we continue to resist the demonisation of teachers, in particular the NEU, by the government and right-wing media, by forging even stronger links between parents and the trade union movement. One method of doing this could be that parents who are trade unionists move motions in solidarity with the NEU in their union branches.
Our campaign is also proposing a car cavalcade protest to the local trade union council to show our support, and protest at the unnecessary risk to the health of our communities.
The fight continues. No return until it’s safe. We’ve pushed them. We can push them further!
Lindsey Morgan, Leicester Socialist Party
Solidarity from a secondary school teacher
Sending solidarity to all those teachers and parents who are using their well-founded ‘instincts’ to defy the government’s reckless back to school decision.
Just for the record, I am a secondary teacher of a ‘non-core’ subject so it is unlikely that anybody is going to ask me to go back to school. But just in case anybody assumes that I am sat here twiddling my thumbs – at the moment this is what my week looks like:
- Setting online assignment for nine classes
- Checking the previous assignments done by these classes
- Doing pastoral well-being phone calls to 22 17-year-olds and their families
- Marking about 40 A-level essays
- ‘Attending’ a number of Zoom meetings with colleagues
- Recording some podcasts for distance learning
- Making lesson resources to be used online
- Emailing parents and students who are understandably struggling to keep up with distance learning.
- Having finished the complex process of working out teacher assessments for GCSE and A-level – now planning how we are going to resume the normal curriculum again in September
- And one day this week actually going in to school to look after vulnerable students and the children of key workers
I am probably spending as much time working as I would be if I was in school. And because the structure of my students and their parents’ days has gone to pieces I am receiving email queries pretty much all around the clock.
I’m not asking for sympathy because this only just represents doing the job I am paid for, like every other teacher in the country. But I wanted to make it clear that our working days are not spent sipping cold beer and having BBQs in the garden.
I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted to stare at a laptop for hours everyday – or because I wanted to work in a call centre. For my own mental health I can’t wait to get back into a classroom before I put a fist through my laptop.
However, like a significant number of the government’s scientific advisors, and knowing kids and the school environment, I think any decision to return to school before the R is lower; track and test is in place; social distancing is possible; and PPE is available is… premature and reckless.
That’s all – the bell’s just gone and break-time is over.
A secondary school teacher, North London
Parents, teachers and students stand together
I am a school student, and although I am not directly affected as I am in year nine, I worry about the safety of those who are. Children in primary schools do not understand germs. They will happily cough and sneeze, and wipe their noses on their hands, and touch things.
Children in foundation will not socially distance. A child will want to hold their teacher’s hand and play with their friends that they haven’t seen in months. How can you tell a four or five year old to not touch things and people? It’s just not realistic!
We also have to question the quality of the education when both the students and staff are in this anxiety-inducing situation. Kids and teachers will be too scared to work, learn and teach, feeling anxious that they will get it and pass it onto their parents, grandparents or sick siblings. The images of schools in France where children sit in crosses in boxes is so sad.
The government has said “we owe it to children to reopen schools”. This is completely hypocritical and manipulative when all my generation has known is austerity. When they have cut our mental health services and schools, and tripled tuition fees.
The Tories have done nothing to make young people’s lives better. They are just making it worse.
They are reopening schools wider simply due to the economy and the capitalists losing money. The government should be making sure every parent who has to look after children is fully supported financially and telling employers that they can’t force parents into work before schools can reopen safely.
Schools in France and South Korea have had to close again because of an increase in coronavirus cases. Students and teachers should be able to feel safe and secure when going back into their work environment.
We should all come together parents, teachers and students and stand together against the unsafe reopening of schools.
Bethany Morgan Smith, Leicester school student and Socialist Party member
Basingstoke campaign for safety
I am a local mum concerned with the wider opening of schools in Basingstoke, so I decided to set up a campaign group. I have also set up a petition to present to the Hampshire National Education Union and given an interview in our local paper.
I have written to my daughter’s school about my concerns, and I must admit that the information they have provided is very well thought through ,and they are doing what they can to minimise risk.
However, even with their plans, it is not possible to open the school fully as there simply isn’t enough space, resources and staff to maintain social distancing, hygiene measures, and keep each group to a maximum of 15. There is no mention of tracking, testing and tracing or using PPE.
I am against the wider opening of schools here, not least as Basingstoke has the highest rate of Covid-19 infection in Hampshire, and has seen 700 Covid-related deaths.
Mayola Demmenie, Basingstoke Socialist Party