Workers, unions and parents must decide when they are


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Louise Cuffaro, NEU Newham branch secretary (pc) and Socialist Party

It’s reckless. It’s unsafe. It flies in the face of all advice from scientists and from teachers. The schools must not reopen on Monday 1 June.

The Tories have had to say they didn’t mean the 1 June reopening date for England ‘firmly’, but they clearly did. It doesn’t feel to me, or my members, or parents that the government has rowed back at all.

Everyone is supposed to be socially distancing outside school, but somehow when you get inside school it’s not so bad? The government says you can have 15 children in nursery, in reception, in Year One, in Year Six!

They haven’t seen their friends for goodness knows how long. They’re young children. They don’t understand. We don’t have the facilities or space to properly social distance, even if that alone was enough to make it safe.

Look carefully at what they’re proposing, especially in the younger age groups. They’re not going to be able to play with their toys. What if one child picks up a coloured pencil that the other child just used?

And there are no facilities to look after children and nurture them in what must be quite a traumatic time for them. Many in Newham have lost people in their families.

To return to school in these circumstances – it’s reckless.

But in fact, schools never closed. The National Education Union (NEU) is absolutely happy to carry on with a rota that cares for vulnerable and key workers’ children. We want to protect the NHS and other essential services. This is still a sacrifice, and still a danger. But it is much smaller numbers.

Difficult situations

And our members not in class are still working from home. It’s not a case of ‘the schools are closed, so we’re doing sod all’. In fact, teachers have been working even harder, and in the most difficult situations.

We’re using IT in ways it’s not been used before, to provide activity and teaching to our students, both primary and secondary. Sometimes very long days, long hours online, making sure we are there for our students. And in primaries, making videos, presenting storytelling time, and so on.

Disgraceful headlines have called teachers lazy, and vilified unions who are trying to protect staff, students and their families. It’s outrageous, and smacks of the gutter press at the time of the miners’ strike, 1984-85.

We’re not saying we’re not prepared to go back. We want to go back – but only once it’s safe. That means satisfying the NEU’s ‘five tests’, including a comprehensive testing and tracing system. These are reasonable and achievable.

But this government cares more about big business than it does about the lives of school staff, students and parents. This mad rush, to get everyone in on 1 June regardless, is a result of the government’s mishmash, reckless, uncaring and two-faced strategy.

Scotland and Wales aren’t reopening. Why are we in England? It’s childcare for big business. This is simply Johnson appeasing the bosses. Asking us to be ‘heroes’ – cannon fodder for their version of war.

I’ve been having reps’ meetings. I’ve been meeting endless union groups in the schools – groups that have never had reps now have four or five.

One trust of privately run ‘academy’ schools published a letter saying they wouldn’t open till 8 June after meeting the union group. That shows they can be pressured, but it’s still too early. We have to keep going.

As I say to my members, the reason we have trade unions is in part because of appalling working conditions in Victorian times, when people died in cotton mill machines and so on. Because of the trade unions, we now have at least some health and safety laws.

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 protects our members from the unsafe conditions they would face if they went back. That law allows workers to judge that premises are unsafe, and to refuse to go in.

And we will use that law. We will make sure our members are clear on what it says, and as a union we will support our members to take that step.

The government is also ignoring the strength of feeling among parents, the families who bring the kids to the gate. I’ve been invited to attend parents’ meetings on this crisis. At the first meeting there were 100 on the Zoom call and another 170 in the ‘waiting room’.

Hundreds are now contacting the parents’ group. Parents are eager to show their unhappiness and concern about the call to return.

One said we should put posters up on school gates and fences, so parents know others feel the same and feel confident in holding their kids back. There is also going to be discussion on what safe protest actions parents can carry out to publicly demonstrate their concerns.

In Newham, trade unionists and socialists have carried out several safe, socially distanced car cavalcades and standing protests against the deaths and the cuts, for example. Standing two metres apart outside is safer than it would be in any of those classrooms!

We understand the headteachers are having to draw up risk assessments for reopening. Those risk assessments may be very useful in the future, when it is safe. But at this time, none of those risk assessments can be acceptable, because the government hasn’t met the NEU’s five tests.

They said they were going to test for the virus right from the beginning. That’s still not up! No teacher or school worker in Newham can just go somewhere to be tested on a weekly basis.

There must also be an agreement that no vulnerable person, or anyone living with a vulnerable person, can come back into the workplace. The government has blurred the higher and lesser categories for vulnerable people.

One of my primary schools passed a motion calling on Newham’s Labour mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, to say the schools won’t reopen, like over a dozen other councils have. She has so far refused to do that. She wants the unions to sign a joint statement with her – I’m not doing it unless she says schools will stay shut.