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Editorial: Teachers are creating reality on the ground – the Tories’ schools policy is in tatters

FOUR hundred thousand people tuned into the National Education Union (NEU’s) online members’ briefing today.

The largest meeting in trade union history is evidence of excellent engagement by a union which makes the most of new technologies, but deploys them in the context of strong workplace organisation.

But of course the unprecedented size of the meeting also points to the urgency of the issue raised.

Primary schools are due to reopen in many parts of England on Monday despite record-breaking infection levels and against the government’s own scientific advice.

The NEU’s advice to members that they should work from home unless their school is opening only for vulnerable children and children of key workers, issued on Saturday, has received immediate support from across the movement. 

The NASUWT is also calling on the government not to reopen schools this week. Unison and GMB, which organise members working in schools, say the same.

Yet more union leaders signed an open letter to the Labour leadership, as did many MPs, calling for it to support the position taken by the NEU, while an online petition backing online learning has been launched by the NEU and Unison and can be signed here.

Head teachers’ unions NAHT and ASCL advise their members to conduct new risk assessments in the event of teachers refusing to enter the workplace on safety grounds (a worker’s right not to enter a dangerous workplace being protected under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act).

These risk assessments, the heads’ unions note, may conclude that it is not safe to open the school at all.

Increasingly the alarm sounded by unions is building momentum for non-compliance with the government’s high-risk policy at local government level. 

Before Christmas the Tories threatened authorities with legal action for advising schools to break up early. 

But the Scottish and Welsh governments are delaying reopening schools to suppress infections and allow time to make them Covid-safe, and the exception forced on ministers in London, where primary school reopening has been delayed, is emboldening local authority leaders elsewhere.

It is not possible to allow households to mix freely in schools while suppressing virus transmission through limiting household mixing elsewhere. 

And schools are hubs: even before the pandemic, their importance to local communities made them focal points for the union of industrial and community activism, as we saw with the hugely influential Stand Up for Education campaign developed by the National Union of Teachers, one of the NEU’s predecessor unions, and the School Cuts site that swung hundreds of thousands of votes against the Conservatives at the 2017 election by drawing out the impact of national policy on local schools.

Teachers, uniting to protect their communities, are changing reality on the ground. Though the Prime Minister continues to insist that parents should send their children to school on Monday, the advice is subject to a growing list of exceptions and qualifications.

Support for teachers’ action will only grow given the chaos engulfing other aspects of the government’s handling of the pandemic, such as the sudden change in vaccination policy — lengthening the gap between first and second jabs and advising that individuals may be inoculated with two different vaccines if stocks of the vaccine used in their first jab are exhausted.

These shifts are causing uproar in the medical professions and prompting nervous disclaimers from the vaccine developers.

The Establishment response has been a string of articles in newspapers including the Sun, Mail, Times and Telegraph badmouthing teachers and their unions. But it isn’t working.

The revolt is growing from workplaces up, while the government scrambles to respond and the Labour leadership stands by, its vacuous focus-group political antennae incapable of keeping up with a rapidly evolving crisis.

Maximum labour movement unity in solidarity with teachers can stop our politicians turning schools into Covid-19 breeding grounds.

And teachers’ victory will strengthen all labour movement forces fighting for a pandemic strategy that prioritises life over business as usual.

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