Resistance is building to the Tory government’s reckless plans to reopen schools

By Charlie Wilson

The Tory government’s criminal plan to end the partial lockdown in the UK at a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to kill of hundreds of people every day is facing mass resistance. The struggle to keep schools closed until the virus has been brought under control has become a crucial fight with the potential to derail the Tories’ callous policy which puts restoring profits before saving people’s lives.

The government needs young children back in the classroom, no matter what the risk to public health, simply to get their parents back to work and making profits again for their employers as soon as possible. The priority instead ought to be to save lives and defeat the coronavirus. If that was the case then it would be essential to keep schools closed until the number of daily cases is brought down to single digits – as schools are clearly daily mass social gatherings with the potential to rapidly spread the virus throughout the country.

Boris Johnson’s government made it clear on 10 May that it wanted to partially reopen schools in England on 1 June. The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland will not follow suit because, like the education unions and the British Medical Association, they do not think it would be safe enough to do so. The National Education Union (NEU) has described this proposal as “reckless.” At the time of writing, at least 18 local authorities across England have rebelled against the government, which means approximately 1,500 primary schools will remain closed on the 1 June. Opinion polls indicate that the public oppose an unsafe reopening of schools as such a decision puts the health and lives of children, teachers, support staff, parents and the wider community at risk.

Opposing the government’s plans to reopen schools in a week and a half’s time is the key to maintaining a partial lockdown. This is crucial to reducing the spread of the virus and saving lives.

The Tory government’s priority is not safe schools – it’s getting parents back to work

In his briefing on 16 May, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson presented two contradictory positions simultaneously.  

  • The first was that reopening schools was conditional on the government’s five safety tests being met and would only be done if they were. Although these five tests are weaker than the WHO’s six conditions for recovery, this was presented as a negotiating offer to the education unions – “my door is always open” – which have their own, more stringent safety checklists which are strongly supported by their members, and parents – 81% of whom do not consider it safe to send their children back to school yet. However, as Williamson was saying that reopening would be cautious and careful just three days before Boris Johnson announced 1 June with no forewarning to anyone in the education sector, the unions might be forgiven for thinking that negotiation with him is a bit like being offered a toy telephone; with the real decisions, it seems, being taken in Number 10 outside the DFE.
  • Although at one point Williamson used the phrase that schools might partially reopen “as early as next month”, this is clearly contradicted by the 1 June start date.
  • How that tension is resolved is the struggle that is now being waged. This will take two forms. One is an argument about the science. The other is a government attempt to apply pressure through the management of the school regardless of whether the safety issues have been resolved or not.

The government’s impatience to hurry this along was apparent in Williamson’s presentation:

  • He acknowledged that it was thanks to the lockdown that the danger level had fallen.
  • But in everything he said there was an odd presumption that this downward trajectory will simply continue from sheer inertia, quite independently of any measures needed to maintain it.
  • By this sleight of hand, the improving situation was presented as being helped along by the removal of the conditions that allowed it to happen.

The announcement from Boris Johnson that workers “should be encouraged” to return to work has led to an increase in the infection rate (R) from a range of 0.5 to 0.9 to a range of 0.7 to 1. When the infection rate gets to 1 and beyond, it begins to run out of control again. We are potentially on the verge of that.

At no point has the UK government committed itself to stating what level of R they consider to be controllable enough to risk reopening schools. That is the key question for them to answer. 

The government are framing “the science” so it gets the results they want. Even a partial reopening of schools might increase the R rate.

The experience in Denmark is that the reopening of schools last month – even with far stricter safeguards than are being contemplated here – led to an increase in the R rate there from 0.6 to 0.9 in the first two weeks before it began to decline again. That was in the context of infection and death rates that were both going down, very low absolute levels, and with systems in place for such a bounce back up to be containable. Denmark also had a precautionary presumption that children spread the virus as much as adults do, and based their policy on that presumption. The education unions and British Medical Association (BMA) are asking for exactly those presumptions and exactly those measures.

The paucity of testing in this country up to now – and its continued partial character – means that any figures they have are necessarily tentative. The government does not know who has the virus, or even the scale of the problem.

NEU leads the challenge

The National Education Union is a union with a leadership that has a strategic vision and tactical nous built from decades of various struggles.

Its response to the crisis has been to demand to know what “the science” is, and to seek unity directly among the education unions and with parents, local authorities and school communities; and beyond with other front line workers and communities. This has been a leadership role on a hegemonic line for the whole of society, of putting lives first

There is now a common front with all education unions – including the Heads unions (NAHT and ASCL) and the NASUWT – that any return to work is conditional on a safe enough national framework, as well as robust conditions in each school.  This has been buttressed by a joint safety checklist for Primary Schools agreed with UNISON, GMB and UNITE, which organise most Teaching Assistants and school admin staff, to be used if the required national framework and conditions are in place.

Schools were partially shut down at the end of March when parents began to keep their children at home and school staff started going off to self isolate if they had any COVID-19 symptoms. The government was still claiming that closing down schools would make “little difference” to infection rates, but people were voting with their feet because that “little difference” might have been measurable in their lives. Indeed, 65 teachers and education professionals died of COVID-19 in England and Wales according to figures from the Office of National Statistics published on the 11 May. It was clear that trying to keep schools open as normal was becoming untenable.

From the beginning the NEU has challenged the government’s use of “the science” as a mystifying received Truth that only they have access to and the rest of us have to take on trust.

The Union has put forward Five Tests for safe school opening. These have been supported by the British Medical Association – which represents doctors – and put the onus on the government to establish appropriate conditions at national level not to simply issue an edict to open up, while dumping responsibility downwards to school leaderships. 

Test 1: Much lower numbers of COVID-19 cases The new case count must be much lower than it is now, with a sustained downward trend and confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly. And the Government must have extensive arrangements for testing and contact tracing to keep it that way.

Test 2: A national plan for social distancing The Government must have a national plan including parameters for both appropriate physical distancing and levels of social mixing in schools, as well as for appropriate PPE, which will be locally negotiated at school-by-school and local authority level.

Test 3: Testing, testing, testing! Comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff to ensure our schools and colleges don’t become hot spots for COVID-19.

Test 4: Whole school strategy Protocols to be put in place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs and for isolation to be strictly followed.

Test 5: Protection for the vulnerable Vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible. Plans must be specifically address the protection of vulnerable parents, grandparents and carers.

The first is the most crucial. The government will be deciding on 28 May whether to go ahead with 1 June. If they go for opening with a high level of infections, without a grip on new cases and with no system in place for testing, tracking and tracing, the union will not agree that it is safe.

This pressure has led to Dame Angela McLean, the Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser, conceding both the point that an effective test, track and trace system will have to be in place for schools to reopen and that this was also dependent on “observed levels of infection and not on a fixed date.” John Edmunds, another member of SAGE, said that “a well functioning track and trace” system had to be “embedded and working well” before schools could reopen. This is a crucial point – that the system should be functioning well – to avoid a headline figure for the number of trackers in place and their potential workload obscuring what they are actually capable of doing at any given point as this could be similar to the government’s 100,000 test target, which was faked.

Matt Hancock let slip on This Morning last week that the Infant year groups selected to go back are those that most need looking after so their parents can go back to work – which indicates that the drive for this is coming from the Treasury and educational considerations are less important than economic. “The science” is tailored to fit.

In a zoom call with 20,000 members – including 1,000 new reps – on Monday 18 May, the NEU said: 

  • 1 June will not be a safe time to reopen schools unless the science behind the government’s thinking is published, debated and not found wanting, a testing, tracking and isolation system is in place, and with new cases and R rates continuing to fall.
  • If these are not in place on 28 May and the government decides to risk lives by pressing ahead, the union will advise that it is not safe to return to work under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act and email all members accordingly. Reps will convene members’ meetings and affirm this collectively.
  • If these are in place, the joint unions checklist is an added safeguard to ensure that local procedures are as safe as possible within them.

Many Head Teachers are similarly concerned, and are showing appropriate levels of care and consideration for their staff and students. Some however, and some Academy chain executives, are gung ho to reopen, proposing levels of contact that breach even the government’s guidelines, trying to exclude staff who are looking after vulnerable relatives from the group that should be expected to work from home. If they call this wrong, people will die, and they could be held criminally liable in consequent legal actions.

The attack from the right

Although schools like Eton aren’t even thinking about going back until September, and many private schools are looking at “hybrid teaching” with some onsite and some distance learning online right up to the end of the year, there have been a set of articles from the Daily Mail  and others which completely avoid the health and safety issue – concentrating instead on the damage being done to children’s education and social development by not being able to go to school, particularly poorer and disadvantaged children. However, surveys for the IFS indicate that only about a third of the parents of the poorest children would send their kids back to school if they were to reopen before the summer, compared to about half of more affluent parents. 

Former Secretaries of State for Education from the Blair years, Blunkett, Clarke and Johnson have come to the government’s rescue. The government needs help. On 23 March polls showed that 72% thought they were handling things well, with only 21% disapproving. By 17 May their support had tumbled to 47%, with 49% disapproving. Mishandling children’s safety could drive them through the floor.

By contrast with Blunkett et al, Labour’s current Shadow Education Secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey has strongly supported the union position and other Labour front benchers have made the call to “publish the science.” This is a change, as Starmer and others had previously been talking about schools reopening as part of Labour’s talk of an “exit strategy”, which gave the government cover.

Momentum is building behind the movement to keep schools closed from the 1 June, with parents, education unions, local authorities and senior Labour politicians leading the way. This is a fight to protect lives and prevent a criminal Tory government from sacrificing the health and safety of children, teachers and the wider community for the sake of making profits.

Keep the lockdown – keep schools closed on the 1 June!