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A ‘new normal’ should mean a new deal for education

As NEU’s annual conference begins, union rep ROBERT POOLE writes that we can’t rely on politicians in Whitehall to give us a national education service — we need to fight for it with our new-found strength

THIS YEAR’S NEU conference is set to be a very different affair to those we are used to — rather than being hosted in Manchester it will take place virtually. But then doesn’t everything?

In fact just as I am starting to get used to life in lockdown on Plague Island it seems like things are starting to ease up and dare I say it — return to normal. Pretty much every adult I know has either now had the vaccine or had Covid-19.

I suspect a very significant number of young people have too, due to the reckless way (intentionally so?) in which school reopenings were handled over and over again.

I’ve decided that as we’ve recently marked the anniversary of the lockdown I am going to use this opportunity to reflect on this past year. Personally speaking my experience of the pandemic has been a lucky one. I know it isn’t the same for everyone.

I’m lucky to have my family to spend time with, a stable job and to live next to some beautiful nature. Can we keep the good bits and lose the bad?

I miss holidays and I can’t visit my mum who lives abroad which is hard but other than that... I really don’t want to go “back to normal.”

There, I’ve said it. I’ve enjoyed the slower pace of life if I’m honest. The shops aren’t open, I hate shopping anyway. Pubs aren’t open, well I’ve two young kids and hardly ever get to go out as it is. I’ve found I’ve more time to read and to write and to put more effort into positive action such as helping with the launch of Strike Map UK.

I’ve finally had a chance to do some work in our small front garden which is now something my son and I do together. I’ve recently started to play chess again, something which was a passion of my grandpa and my father and now something I have started teaching to my own kids — though I have an inkling they will be able to beat me in no time.

Teaching is slowly returning to the way it was and I must admit it has been great to see my pupils again. For all the benefits of remote teaching I do not miss talking to a screen, which I suspected at times, though I am assured of the opposite by my pupils, was actually me talking to myself.

What about positives for the labour movement? The most positive has been the reinvigoration of trade unions and a surge in workplace organising. The NEU has seen a surge in new members and more importantly new reps — 4,000 to date.

The role played by our joint general secretaries has no doubt been important but what has really made the difference has been the way in which reps and lay officers across the country have worked to ensure that their workplaces are safe for their workers and for our children.

If you think back to last summer there were calls by the Tory government for a full reopening in June. This was condemned by doctors and scientists alike but it was the actions of workers in schools which ensured this didn’t happen.

In doing so we undoubtedly saved thousands of lives: when schools did finally reopen we saw a massive surge in cases with the obvious link made to schools being the engine of transmission.

Despite this we saw numbers hurtling up before Christmas with schools being threatened with legal action if they closed despite the evidence that it was unsafe for them to be open.

With the January reopening fast approaching and the hands of the union tied by anti-trade union legislation, individual members made the brave choice to act independently and invoke their right to refuse to work in unsafe workplaces.

Once again the government dithered and Johnson blustered before finally acquiescing and making the right choice — albeit one day too late — and switched schools to remote learning.

I am concerned though that as we return to normal all the parts that make the job hell at times will also begin to return. Data points, learning walks, book looks and Ofsted on the horizon. We now have a unique opportunity to use our new power and our renewed strength for good.

It is time for change in education and we have the chance to reshape the future for education workers. This conference has some exciting motions on the agenda, especially the national contract for all education workers — teachers, support staff, supply staff and lecturers. It is time for a new deal for educators and for the education system as a whole, one in which we have decent pay, proper funding and real professional control.

In the UK today there is a bubbling unease from parents, pupils and education workers around the direction that education has taken. A narrowing of the curriculum, a focus on certain favoured teaching styles and an obsession with testing.

Though not talking about education specifically, Ralph Miliband wrote in 1960 that “socialists can help to give substance, precision and drive to that unease and that awareness. In so doing, they will, in the perspective of tomorrow, lay the foundations for real advances the day after tomorrow.” We can’t rely on politicians in Whitehall to give us a national education service — we need to fight for it.

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