THE battle to stop the government’s reckless drive to reopen schools with scant regard for child or staff safety is led by educators and their unions.
Nonetheless it is a battle whose outcome could hardly be of greater importance for the public. Reopening schools does not “merely” affect the millions who attend or work in them.
Once schools are operating normally all those who come into contact with those millions of people, the families, carers and dependants, are affected too.
Unless the government can demonstrate it is ready and able to enforce serious safeguards — such as those imposed when China began reopening schools, which involved smaller class sizes, classes using separate entrances, regular deep cleans and disinfection of everything used, physical distancing within schools, shorter school days and, above all, mandatory testing of pupils and staff before they were cleared to come in, each school risks becoming a “super-spreader” enabling the Covid-19 virus to spread like wildfire through communities.
It is not a partial or gradual easing of lockdown: it drives a coach and horses through it.
For the government as well as the public, reopening schools holds a significance that reaches way beyond the education sector.
Ministers have long promoted education policies that widen the gap between the children of richer and poorer families, such as academisation and baseline testing.
They have ignored repeated warnings from education unions on the terrible impact of austerity on children’s ability to learn, with teachers sounding the alarm over children too tired, too hungry or too ill to concentrate.
Now these same ministers pose as champions of the disadvantaged, declaring that schools must reopen quickly so that the poorest do not fall too far behind richer pupils who are better placed to learn at home.
That won’t wash. Tory ministers want schools reopened because parents providing childcare are more difficult to dragoon back into the workplace themselves.
An Establishment propaganda barrage has been directed at teachers, accusing them of betraying these pupils’ interests through a presumably selfish desire to avoid being infected — with a virus that could kill them, members of their families or members of their pupils’ families.
As NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach warns, this is a “situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying.”
Blairite figures in the Labour Party such as warmongering loudmouth Ian Austin savage trade unions in the press while former education secretary David — now Lord — Blunkett deploys literal peer pressure in the hope of bullying teachers into acting against their consciences.
This reached a crescendo in today’s Daily Mail with an appalling and grossly misleading assault on teachers’ unions. As Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner says, “it’s not ‘militant’ to demand safety measures are in place for children and staff alike.”
As for the familiar slur that union headbangers are imposing their will on a workforce eager to comply with government wishes, it is surely demolished by National Education Union joint general secretary Kevin Courtney’s observation that his union has recruited 7,500 new members in three days and received 100,000 responses to a members’ survey in 48 hours.
As Courtney makes clear, teachers do want to get back to work — when it is safe. The five tests that the union has set out are not just supported by teachers but by the British Medical Association.
The government must be made to back down. But this will only happen if it is faced with the reality that it is unable to reopen schools.
The lead taken by local authorities such as Liverpool City Council, which has confirmed that it will not take the risk of reopening schools in line with the government’s timetable, provides a model for other authorities and their following suit should be a core demand we make through our unions, trades councils and local campaigns. This is a winnable fight.
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