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Editorial: The Tory retreat on schools is a victory for public safety

THE government’s retreat from its reckless determination to fully reopen English primary schools before the summer holidays is a victory for public safety.

And it is a victory secured by organised workers. Educators’ trade unions have led the opposition to full reopening, pointing out that ministers have been unable to explain how schools would be able to maintain social distancing guidelines if catering for a full complement of pupils.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement reflected a reality that had already taken shape. Nearly half all primary schools in the country did not open to any more pupils last week despite the government’s attempt to get reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back in the classrooms.

School leaders’ confidence in prioritising safety over government instructions rested on the strength of educators’ organising within institutions — reflected in a wave of recruitment and the election of thousands of new workplace reps.

And it grew too from a strategy that applied pressure at school and local government level, which resulted in ever greater numbers of local authorities confirming that they would not co-operate with Westminster’s plans.

In the process, teachers received all the vilification and abuse that workers organising in their unions always encounter when they effectively challenge the prerogatives of capital.

The National Education Union (NEU) in particular was subjected to a string of smears in the Daily Mail, while a rogues’ gallery of Labour and ex-Labour rightwingers such as David Blunkett, Alan Johnson and Ian Austin piled in to join the attack — some urging Labour leader Keir Starmer to denounce the teachers’ unions as a sign that the right was back in charge.

Starmer didn’t do that, but though Labour has welcomed the government’s retreat it played no part in it. At no point did it offer the full support for teachers they ought to have had a right to expect.

Today was a workers’ victory secured over Westminster, not through it.

But it remains a very partial victory, because, as teachers have consistently pointed out, the impact of prolonged school closures on children’s education and wellbeing is severe.

This is especially so because the government has paid scant attention to adapting the delivery of education to pandemic conditions, instead prioritising a mass reopening of schools designed not to get kids’ education back on track but to remove an obstacle to their parents’ ability to return to the workplace.

NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted’s call for a national plan for education should form the impetus for the next stage of campaigning — and she identifies key parts of such a plan: blending home and school learning practices, increasing support for disadvantaged children including by extending free internet access and “requisitioning local public spaces such as community centres and libraries so that pressure on school space is lessened and more children are able to return to school in safe environments.”

In Parliament, both government and opposition have been hamstrung by their commitment to returning to “normal” after the lockdown. 

While they argue about the speed and scale of relaxing lockdown, neither party leadership seems interested in reshaping the economy to address the needs the pandemic creates — whether that entails repurposing public spaces, reforming the agricultural sector to ensure proper wages and conditions for the home-grown “land army” needed to plug the gap left by super-exploited labour from overseas or taking control of industries to prevent the catastrophic job losses being threatened by the likes of British Airways and Rolls-Royce.

Though the case for action on all these fronts is compelling, ministers run scared of the public realising the potential of such interventions to transform existing practices and shift the balance of power away from corporations and in favour of workers.

But as educators’ unions have now shown, we can successfully press for change despite that.

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