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English schools reopening - teachers get militant

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

by Dave Gilchrist

What was always a creaky consensus around the measures taken by the UK government against the Coronavirus pandemic has dissolved and the country has descended into, what looks to many, as open class warfare.

The lockdown against the spread of covid-19 in the UK was judged by many to be too little and too late. Nor had the Johnson government covered itself in glory with its delivery of the protective equipment needed by health workers to guard against them catching the virus. Again too little and too late - was the verdict.

What really changed the mood however was the move to begin opening up the country to renewed economic activity. Workers in industry and especially in construction were practically ordered to return to work. The government slogan of Stay at Home was changed to the vacuous Stay Alert, and workers were told, work at home if you can but go to work if you can’t.

The class ramifications of this were immediately clear. Manual workers were to be forced back. Social distancing regulations that had been paramount in the first stage of lockdown were no longer seen to be so important, if they were in the workplace that is.

The key test however was the government's announcement, not discussed with teachers and education workers. This was that the youngest classes would return to schools in England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own arrangements). This was to take place in Reception and Year 1 in the English Primary School system - and also Year 6, the oldest were slated to be first to return.

Year 10 pupils in secondary were also listed as ‘having some face to face time with their teachers’. When the government's guidelines were published there was no provision for adequate social distancing of children. Crucially these measures are in the context of the still very high UK rate of infection and the huge excess deaths total.

The reaction was swift. The National Education Union, one of the largest unions in the country, quickly set out its position that there should be no return to school until it was safe to do so. It set out five Tests for when it would be safe to return:

  • Test 1: Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases

  • Test 2: A national plan for social distancing

  • Test 3: Testing, testing, testing!

  • Test 4: Whole school strategy

  • Test 5: Protection for the vulnerable

The NEU is a left led union and it’s joint General Secretaries, Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted zoomed into every newsroom that would have them, to promulgate the message.

They organised a series of meetings on the zoom platform for members, culminating in what must be the largest online mass meeting of union members ever. At this 20 000 education workers listened to the General Secretaries and President Amanda Martin speak. Participants were able to submit questions and to chat to each other in the meeting.

The large turnout was indicative of the mood of education workers but also a tribute to the hard work of NEU branch secretaries and rank and file militants in galvanising their members. It is this rank and file core that will have to steady the nerves and increase the confidence of education workers as the June 1 deadline approaches.

Primary schools are small workplaces and often run by paternalistic leaders that claim to be ‘doing the best for the children’. Many Headteachers are equally as worried as education workers are, and the best of them will support the union stance. Where they do not support it, good organisation and solidarity is needed to help those that may feel pressured back to work.

There has been a huge battle for hegemony in this struggle. The government has of course the TV and the newspapers to push their message, which has been backed up by the rotten right wing elements of the Labour Party. These include former Education minister David Blunkett for instance, and that constant reactionary - Tony Blair - has thrown his weight behind the government.

The NEU has been backed, albeit in a less resolute form, by other education unions and crucially the doctors 'union' (the BMA) and by a groundswell of support from trade unionists across the country. Parents are now getting involved too, there have been various facebook groups set up to resist the return until its safe and also a number of big zoom meetings involving up to 600 parents have taken place around the country.

Health workers have swung behind the education battle too, with a 600 strong Health Workers People Before Profit meeting supporting the NEU stance, Some local councils led by the good example of Liverpool have said that they will not be opening until it is safe. It looks like a majority are saying that the decision is up to schools.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies group set up by David King the former chief scientific advisor is also saying that schools should not return until it is safe. So a lot of ground has been taken but of course we should not be complacent. The government, weak though it is, will bring huge pressure to bear.

The return to school is all about restarting the profit making system. This is why the youngest children were chosen to go back first, they need to release those workers from child care to get them back to work. Education workers organised in the NEU are facing a huge battle but they have used the new technological means at their disposal to organise both nationally and locally, a very good sign of how we can continue to resist and to build for a better future.

This fight is crucial for UK workers, a victory here would set the scene for how the struggle for workers health can be conducted and prepare the ground for fights to come over who pays for the crisis. A defeat by open class forces in this battle will be a huge defeat for not only the government but for their paymasters in the boardrooms too.

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