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The government’s aspiration to open schools to all Year 6, Year 1, Reception and Nursery children on 1 June is likely to be largely unrealised.
That is good. We all want children back in our schools, but the number of cases and the continual spread of the virus indicate that it is not sufficiently safe yet for opening beyond those categories of children who are currently allowed to attend (“vulnerable” children, and children of key workers).
Since Johnson’s announcement on 10 May, the National Education Union and other school unions have been lobbying and negotiating with the government, with councils, and locally with schools. Within this process the union has reminded those working in schools that if they believe they are in “serious and imminent” danger they can utilise Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act to refuse to work.
The unions’ lobbying has yielded some significant success. The NEU reported on 22 May that more than 30 councils were saying no school would open on 1 June. Many other schools outside those councils will not open on 1 June, because of the judgement of the school leadership or under the pressure of the union.
There will probably be some degree of opening to more pupils in some places on 1 June, but far short of the government’s aspiration.
The NEU, along with Unite, Unison and GMB, has issued a joint union checklist which reps can use in schools before they can admit more pupils. The unions are clear that it is not supposed to be used to for 1 June openings, but rather when the NEU’s five general tests for wider opening are met. The stringent checklist is a tool to empower members where a reopening is being pushed for.
Resisting 1 June, enforcing the checklist, and, failing those, individual members exercising their rights under Section 44, are all dependent on union strength on the ground.
The stronger the union is in a borough or in a school, the less likely school managers will be to push for a hasty wider opening. If the union is strong we will be able to enforce the checklist, or if we can’t members will be confident enough to use Section 44.
However, where the union isn’t strong, we will struggle to enforce any of that. That is not an easily solvable problem.
The union nationally should be strong and energetic in following its lines of action. There needs to be a guarantee that attempts to victimise members who use Section 44 will be speedily met by determined strike action. Members need to know the union will back them. The union needs to be on a war footing to prepare for the battles that will occur on and after 1 June.
Many on the left of the union want a national ballot for strike action as part of this strategy. It should be part of the strategy. But even at best it does not address the issues posed by 1 June (a ballot could not deliver action until July). At worst it could distract from building the response for 1 June and the immediate aftermath.
The fact that the union strategy has not been agreed by a decision-making National Executive of the union is a real problem. The fight to get all the lay-democratic structures of the union functioning immediately is central to any possibility of rank-and-file control over the strategy.
Based on current information about the infection rate and the numbers of cases, there should be no wider opening of schools until September. In the meantime, where it is safe to do so, we should increase the already significant efforts to get more vulnerable children in to our schools.
In many schools the definition of “vulnerable” has been extended beyond the government’s minimum by those who work with them. We should continue to fight for that. Rather than arbitrary year groups decided by the government, the children who return first should be decided by school workers.
Although the NEU’s approach has been less than perfect, the clear and visible response combined with the serious situation have meant the union is growing rapidly. Over 14,000 members joined between 11 and 21 May. During this same period the union also recruited around 1,000 new reps.
Many of the new members and reps are not teachers but support staff. That will change the nature of the union and school trade unionism for the better. We are closer to one school workers’ union.