• Stand firm for workplace safety
  • School staff and parents show the way
  • No return to work until safety can be guaranteed
  • Workers’ and trade union control of workplace safety

Faced with parental distrust and organised trade union opposition, the Tories’ plans to implement a wider, phased return of children into England’s primary schools from 1 June have run into widespread resistance.

With decisions varying widely from area to area – and even from school to school – it’s difficult to judge exactly how far the government has been pushed back. It’s certainly been by a long way.

When even the compliant BBC News reports there’s been a “mixed picture on turnout”, it’s safe to conclude that the plans to widen opening to all nursery, reception, Year One and Year Six pupils have failed to materialise in most schools as yet. Government “ambition” to go further and bring all primary year groups back before the summer holidays seems even less likely to be achieved.

Responding to union warnings about the risks to public health, dozens of local authorities issued statements raising concerns about government plans. Some, although nowhere near enough, went further and gave clear advice that wider opening should not be implemented at this stage.

Tory-controlled Lancashire County Council’s statement summed up why their own government’s proposals are so reckless: “The test and trace programme is not at a state of readiness to respond to Covid-19 community-setting outbreaks in a timely manner… Furthermore, we are not confident that adjustments to the current measures of the lockdown policy will not risk a second peak of infections locally”.

Chorus of concerns

As the clock ticked down to 1 June, the chorus of concerns from public health experts grew louder. Even members of the government’s own Sage committee broke ranks. For example, Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, tweeted: “Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England… TTI [test, track, isolate] has to be in place, fully working, capable dealing any surge immediately, locally responsive, rapid results and infection rates have to be lower.” But this is, of course, exactly what the trade unions, led by the National Education Union (NEU), have been saying for weeks.

Under mounting pressure, some schools have opted to only open to fewer additional pupils than the government wanted for now. Others have decided to delay wider opening entirely for at least a week or two while they consider the health risks – and the level of opposition – further.

Even where schools did open, if press surveys were correct, perhaps half of parents will have opted, where they could, to keep their children at home for now. That will be particularly the case in places where local parents have organised campaigns to back up the unions’ slogan of “not until it’s safe”.

But it has been the opposition of the school staff unions, led by the National Education Union, that has been key to pushing the Tories back. By insisting that schools can’t be safe for wider opening until our public health-based ‘five tests’ are met, the pressure has been put on the government to deliver on its responsibilities, rather than expecting schools to somehow muddle through.

Where local union branches and school workplace reps have organised with the most determination, the opposition has been the greatest. They were working solidly throughout the half-term week up to 1 June speaking to members, organising meetings, lobbying heads and councillors. Where this has been done effectively, hardly any primary schools opened more widely on 1 June.

While the pupil return has been slowed, the overall picture is uneven. The Tories hope that numbers will increase further and resistance falls away. However, that means overcoming the opposition of staff in the best organised schools, including those in the secondary sector who aren’t due to start a phased wider opening until 15 June.

The next two weeks in this battle are going to be critical. Some primary schools, and some in the trade unions too, hope that delaying wider opening until 8 or 15 June will give time for testing and tracing to be properly embedded.

However, the government’s record throughout this crisis can give no school employee or parent any confidence that the NEU’s ‘five tests’ will be met anytime soon. The confusing messaging over easing the lockdown means that, instead of falling, infection rates may start to rise again.

National testing and tracing plans still appear to be in chaos. There has certainly been no sign of school staff being given access to “regular testing” as the NEU demands. The government itself admits that social distancing is impossible to maintain with younger children. The virus will spread between them. Regular workplace screening, including to those without symptoms, will at least give staff some reassurance that they are not bringing it home to their families.

NEU members must insist that all the other union ‘tests’ need to be met too. A guarantee that staff who are concerned about their vulnerability, and those living with vulnerable relatives, can continue to work from home is a significant part of those tests. This is particularly a concern for many Black Asian and Minority Ethnic staff.

The united demand has to remain that a wider return is “unsafe until the tests are fully met”.

But schools are going to be under increasing pressure to submit to Tory plans, even though that threatens the serious danger of a ‘second wave’ of the virus. In order to protect themselves, and their school communities, it is inevitable that more staff are going to have to assert their health and safety rights under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act. Already, where staff have threatened that they will apply those rights together, employers have been forced to reconsider their plans.

The NEU website has been updated with advice explaining both the legal responsibilities on employers and the rights of employees faced with a ‘serious and imminent danger’ to either leave, or refuse to return to, an unsafe workplace. It also contains model letters to send to headteachers, based on the ‘five tests’ and union checklists, for staff to sign together, asserting those rights. That information needs to be disseminated and discussed as widely and as quickly as possible.

Union strength, backed up by parental opposition, has already had an effect. For the safety of our colleagues and our school communities, let’s stay strong and insist that safety has to comes first.

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