The battle lines are being drawn over school-return

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A major confrontation between the UK Government and teaching unions in England looks set to have a significant bearing on the UK’s emergence from lockdown. Conter spoke to National Education Union (NEU) rep and Northumberland branch officer Alex Snowdon about the looming fight.

Conter: Are the government still looking to get teachers back to school on 1st June, despite continued opposition from unions? Is this date likely to drift?

Snowdon: I should begin by pointing out that schools have never entirely closed. Schools have remained open for small numbers of children who are deemed vulnerable or have parents who are key workers. In most areas only a small minority of eligible parents took up this offer, indicating how seriously people have taken the lockdown – and the degree of anxiety parents have felt about their children’s safety. In addition to going in on staff rotas for those children, teachers have also been providing remote learning from home. 

The planned wider re-opening on Monday 1st June was first announced by Boris Johnson in his address to the nation on 10th May. Due to schools policy being devolved, his announcements only applied to England. It was a shock to everyone when he declared his intention to get not only Year 6 pupils back into school (as had been widely rumoured) but also the youngest schoolchildren in Reception and Year 1.  

There had been no consultation on this with unions and it seems only a small number of senior government figures knew in advance. The announcements by Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations – that they had no intention to return larger numbers of children to the classroom – made this all the more contentious. 

On Sunday (24 May) Johnson confirmed that 1st June is definitely the return date for these supposed priority year groups. He also announced a new date – 15th June – for a partial return by secondary pupils. These dates are arbitrary, unrelated to any scientific evidence that has been shared publicly. Johnson clearly views this issue as integral to the wider push back to work – it is really about getting parents into the workplaces again. It has become a totemic struggle in that wider offensive for the government. 

There is already drift at ground level. Many English local authorities, almost entirely those run by Labour, have either declared their schools won’t reopen on 1st June or, more likely, suggested it will be a matter for individual schools. That latter position is a rather weak one, but indicates the widespread disquiet over this. It also looks like many parents will choose to keep their children at home. 

Johnson was forced, in Sunday’s media briefing, to acknowledge the problems with 1st June, saying that he understands not all schools will be able to open on that date. This reflects a massive backlash from unions, headteachers, parents and others. It is also due to the immense practical challenges faced by schools in preparing for a kind of schooling that they will be anything but normal. 

Conter: How are the government arguing in favour of the return, and what is the union response?

Snowdon: There has been a lack of coherence or consistency to the government case, but it is obviously bound up with wider easing of the lockdown, especially the return to workplaces for millions of people. Remember that the initial announcement on 10th May was part of a bigger phased strategy. School reopening is the central plank of phase two in this lifting of the lockdown. In reality it is economic imperatives driving this. 

Three arguments have deployed above all. One is the obvious point about it enabling parents to return to work. Another is educational – the idea that it is best for the children themselves, both for their well-being and their learning. This is admittedly undermined by the focus on the youngest children going back – in many European countries children of that age are not yet in formal schooling, so it is hard to accept that being in the classroom is absolutely essential for them. 

It has also become increasingly apparent that young children’s classroom environments will be sterile and potentially upsetting due to the precautions schools are taking. The notion of social distancing for young children is  widely regarded as absurd. 

A third argument took a little while to emerge and is utterly cynical. This is the notion that disadvantaged children are especially badly affected by not being in school, so wider reopening is an egalitarian move for their benefit. This aspiration is at odds with the Tory government’s record over the last decade of austerity, school funding cuts, increased child poverty and so on. Teachers and our trade unions have reiterated that the struggles for children in poverty, or those with challenging home circumstances, are extremely important for us. There are measures the government could have taken to genuinely help these children, instead of opportunistically deploying social issues for political gain. The point is that it is not yet safe to reopen schools more widely. 

The National Education Union, with over 450,000 members and high density in the primary sector, has consistently foregrounded safety. This is about saving lives. It isn’t just about protecting teachers and support staff, but a matter of protecting children, their families and the wider community. 

The NEU’s Five Tests for reopening have been promoted relentlessly. Test One – that transmission levels must unambiguously have been reduced drastically – has not been met. That is not the only issue, but it is the most fundamental. Another major obstacle is the continuing absence of a proper programme of testing and tracing. Other unions representing head teachers, teachers or support staff have taken similar positions. 

Conter: Could this be the first big confrontation between the government and an organised workforce? How significant could the conflict become?

Snowdon: The push back to work, announced on 10 May, heralded a new chapter in this entire crisis. It marked a shift towards lifting the lockdown: a partial easing, it is true, but the ‘get back to work’ message was central. This inevitably means a sharpening of class conflict in the workplaces. 

By and large, however, that conflict has not found much overt expression. Although many unions have seen membership growth, recruited new reps and made their voice heard during the crisis, we have not seen collective refusals to go back by groups of workers. That is a legacy of decades of defeats for organised workers, low levels of strike action and the weakening of union organisation. There has been anger and some impressive campaigning, but the confidence to act at workplace level has generally been missing. 

Teachers face a nationally coordinated offensive to do something that union surveys show is massively unpopular in the profession. The union focus has therefore primarily been on a nationwide effort to push the government back. That means forcing the government to drop its obsession with 1st June and delay wider reopening, preferably until whenever that is genuinely safe. At the moment it looks like the government is committed to driving through its plans. 

Union resistance has been helped by schools being a high-density sector for union membership and the strengths of the NEU, from a left leadership to very strong reps organisation. The divisions between different unions are still a problem, but not as much as previously since the NUT and ATL merger to form the NEU in 2017. There has consistently been an approach that links conditions for staff with the bigger issues around suppressing the virus in society and the best interests of children and young people. 

In a sense, therefore, a major national confrontation has already developed. Anyone looking for a national strike will be disappointed: the legal constraints around postal ballots make that impossible in the time frame we face. It has therefore been a case, for the National Education Union especially, of deploying every tactic available aside from strikes. As for what might happen at local authority level or school level around the 1st June reopening, it remains to be seen what the NEU – allied with other unions, parents and sometimes local councils – can achieve.

Conter: Recently there was a huge online meeting by NEU trade unionists – what lessons can we draw from it for organising in the pandemic era and beyond? 

Snowdon: Around 20,000 members took part via zoom – an astonishing indication of the strength of feeling, but also a reflection of existing strengths in organising and engagement of members by the union. There has been a series of video calls for reps and branch officers, as well as those for the general membership, over the last two months. These have been vital for responding quickly to new developments, ensuring a coordinated strategy is implemented, and mobilising (and growing) the activist base of the union. The union’s adapting to lockdown conditions, using video call technology and also tools like WhatsApp groups for local clusters of reps, has been highly impressive. 

New members have joined the NEU in significant numbers – 14,000 joined between 11 May and 21 May. Over 1000 new reps have been recruited to an already sizeable network of school reps. Reps are truly the backbone of any union and that is especially true in the NEU, which covers thousands of relatively small workplaces. There has been plenty of guidance and fresh information from the national union at every stage, with a barrage of statements, video clips, graphics and press releases helping build pressure on the government but also providing a steer to reps and members. 

All of this will, I am sure, continue in some form beyond the current period. The power of certain tools for keeping people connected will not be forgotten. But it is vital to recognise that this isn’t just about online technologies but a larger organising strategy that is oriented on building up workplace strength, in particular through a large and closely-connected network of reps. That is key. 

Conter: What does the conflict tell us more broadly about education under capitalism, and how decisions are made concerning safety and the economy?

Snowdon: The crisis has raised big questions about education. If we can skip SATs for Year 6 this year, do we really need high-stakes testing for 11 year olds in the future? How can the government even consider ploughing ahead with baseline testing for young children starting school when the priority, this September, will be on their safety, wellbeing and personal development? If GCSEs and A levels are not happening for one year, could this be space to rethink the entire ‘exam factories’ model of schooling? If we can go months with no Ofsted inspections, how about making it permanent?

Broadly speaking, it has become clear that the priority for government is the needs of the economy, by which is really meant the interests of the wealthy and of big business. This overrides educational considerations, just as it overrides health and safety. Children are being used as guinea pigs in a massively risky social experiment in lifting the lockdown. This is at a time when it is far from clear that the virus is under control and when mass testing is not in place. 

There is a fundamental clash of priorities. What’s hopeful is that increasing numbers of people, including among teachers, are both becoming more aware of that clash and sensing that something might actually be done about it. There are opportunities opening up that we mustn’t let go to waste. 

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