The new year began with a rare victory for trade unions against the government’s insistence that schools would re-open despite the national lockdown and mounting evidence of rampant coronavirus transmission in educational settings.
Mass direct action led by the National Education Union, with Unison support, forced the Tories into a series of damaging U-turns. In effect the government has, with some notable exceptions, adopted the unions’ plan for partial school closures and delayed re-opening.
First, the hapless Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a two-week delay for re-opening secondary schools. This was soon widened to include primaries, and finally Boris Johnson announced that all schools would remain closed, except to vulnerable and key worker children, at least until 8 March, despite some backbench Tories continue gnashing their teeth.
Additional concessions include regular testing of all staff and secondary students and compulsory mask-wearing in classrooms, with the exception of nurseries. GCSE, BTEC and A-level exams have also been cancelled, to be replaced by teacher assessments.
Free school meals remain a major battleground. While Johnson was shamed into providing them over Christmas and into improving their nutritional content (credit due here to our unofficial striker, Marcus Rashford), working class children still need to eat in the holidays, so the campaign for all-year round provision continues.
As we go to press, it is expected that the Tories will set out plans for the re-opening of schools. Teachers and support staff must make sure this is guided by public health needs, not the needs of the capitalist economy.
These hard fought victories had nothing to do with the Labour Party, whose shadow cabinet parroted the phrase, “schools must be the last thing to close” until they actually closed and then demanded they be the first to re-open.
Back in the summer, Keir Starmer sacked shadow education minister Rebecca Long-Bailey for supporting the NEU’s line; her replacement Kate Green and Schools Minister Wes Streeting have since been impervious not only to the NEU’s demands but have also ignored party policy for a National Education Service.
In fact it was workers’ action that forced the pace all the way. All the unions, especially the NEU, have recruited tens of thousands of school staff and hundreds of thousands have joined zoom calls to receive advice and organise collective action. New shop stewards have stepped up and joint union committees and meetings have taken off.
A key weapon has been Sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act of 1996, which allow workers to refuse to work where doing so would put them or others in “serious and imminent danger”. The NEU and Unison, though not the more moderate NASUWT and GMB, finally, under pressure from below, advised their members to invoke their rights under this legislation if their demands for safety were not met.
To give an example: on one Saturday in early January, I attended a 35-strong meeting of nursery workers, who were being asked to accept all children back. We agreed to hold an indicative ballot for strike action and prepared to issue Section 44 notices.
When word got around, a further call with nine more members on Sunday confirmed the decision. By Monday, the executive head had agreed to limit attendance to vulnerable and key workers, just like primary schools. Workers vetoed management’s decision.
Vigilance needs to be our watchword regarding the conditions that must be met for schools to re-open. If the government tries to re-open schools too early or fails to provide for PPE, testing or social distancing, we should close them.
But we also need a political campaign to build back our education system better, bigger, safer and more inclusive – not just now, but permanently.
The government dares to claim to be the champion of disadvantaged young people it should be forced to fund a programme to transform schools and colleges into places for them to meet, study, learn and argue about the world and our role in it. It should include:
- More buildings – to start with, requisitioned hotels and marquees – and open spaces, so children and students can learn and play in a physically and mentally healthy environment; and better IT provision for those learning from home
- More staff – teachers, TAs, pastoral staff, counsellors and nurses – so we can teach smaller classes, give more in-class, one-to-one and small group support and tackle mental health issues, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic
- A publicly owned and democratically run school system, taking over the academies and private schools, involving students, parents and education workers in planning and overseeing an expanded service.
These are the fundamentals of a National Education Service fit for all. We should force the Labour leadership to fight for it. But an election is too far away; we need to fight for it now, while the Tories are in disarray.
Political action doesn’t just mean parliamentary and Labour Party motions. We need a national strike, led by those education unions prepared to fight, to stop the victimisation of union activists and demand Whitehall funds better, safer schools – permanently. Involving young people themselves in that battle is the best lesson we can give them right now.