The phrase “too little, too late” comes to mind when talking about the latest National Education Union (NEU) checklist for risk assessments ahead of a wider opening of schools in September. It was sent to reps at 6.45pm on Friday 10th July, by which time some schools had already broken up and others had just a week left. The reason given for this was that we were waiting for the sign off from the other education unions. This is always a dangerous approach as the pace is dictated by the slowest moving wagon. Much was made in June of the fact that the NAHT signed the previous checklist which could be used, particularly in primary schools, to shape the approach of heads as their union would be calling for the same things we were. This time only NEU, GMB, Unite and UNISON have agreed it. Whilst this is an important coalition, was this really worth waiting so long for when many Heads have already drawn up their plans for September?
There is no mention of the #FiveTests, a central part of the Union’s campaign when wider opening was threatened in late May and early June. While we have argued consistently that the Five Tests do not go far enough, they were a positive starting point: now it seems that they have been unceremoniously dropped. The power of having the Five Tests as our criteria was that we have clear demands that must be met, regardless of the situation with the virus. It means we have the basis to fight for control over our workplaces rather than reacting to DfE advice.
The checklist also does not mention that schools should be closed immediately if there are confirmed cases of Covid-19, or address the need for safe staffing levels and class sizes. The checklist doesn’t give sufficient guidance around those staff who were previously shielding and puts the onus on the NEU rep to agree individual risk assessments with the employer rather than using the collective strength of the 450,000+ members to win a guarantee nationally that those shielding can be given the option of continuing to work from home. Fundamentally the checklist accepts the DfE guidance as gospel and asks how it can be implemented, rather than challenging the guidance itself.
The rank and file of the Union must now work with other unions in schools, particularly those representing support staff, to develop our own strategy for safety, using what we can from the current checklist but developing local demands. This should use the #FiveTests as a starting point, with additional criteria including very low transmissions in a district before a school can open, and immediate closure if a positive case of Covid-19 is confirmed. The use of Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to refuse to enter an unsafe workplace must be on the table, along with balloting for industrial action locally and nationally to ensure that no-one is forced into dangerous working conditions.
We should be fighting for a patient phased return of students, one year group or class bubbles added at a time and this plan being scaled up only when the system is functioning successfully for those within school and on the agreement of union reps. This would mean continuing with blended learning and phasing that out gradually.
The checklist mentions directed time and workload but again agreements will have to be made at local level to ensure the staggered start and end times can be accommodated within 1265 hours of directed time. This may mean major changes to how meetings are conducted, lesson loading or the school year itself are structured. There will be many heads and MAT CEOs who will want to use the crisis to tear up hard won conditions.
Workers must be in control of when and how schools come back in September. School staff, children and families should not be sacrificed for sake of the economy.