Schools: Act together to oppose unsafe numbers and rising workload

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Martin Powell-Davies, NEU deputy general secretary election candidate

School staff should take confidence. Our mass refusal to accept unsafe working conditions forced the government to U-turn after only one day of the new school term.

Only 24 hours earlier, Boris Johnson was claiming schools were safe. He then had to admit that schools act as “vectors for transmission” of the virus after all – something that we all knew months ago. The cancellation of Sats, GCSEs and A-levels soon followed too.

We should learn important lessons. We were able to succeed by acting together, asserting our legal rights to a safe workplace through ‘Section 44’ of the Employment Rights Act 1996. We achieved more in a few days than petitions and letter writing to ministers had achieved in months.

Far from over

The education unions’ work is far from over. Any celebrations over the U-turn have sadly only been short-lived. It soon became clear that schools aren’t really ‘closed’ at all.

Everyone is working under highly stressful conditions. Workload is rising. And the threat of Ofsted monitoring is being raised again.

Too many schools are making unreasonable demands, particularly over online learning. Some have told staff they have to attend work every day, even though the lockdown regulations say: “Everybody should work from home where possible”.

Support staff have been under particular pressure. They should be included on rotas to support learning from home too.

Above all, too many classrooms remain dangerously full. The definition of ‘critical workers’ has been applied far too widely.

Nursery classes have been told they must remain fully open. Special schools have also been under pressure to accept every pupil.

It is putting more lives in danger and more pressure on an overwhelmed NHS. We have to insist that numbers in classrooms are cut back.

100% pay

We recognise the pressure on our school communities. Children need more resources at home and parents/carers should be eligible for full pay when they have to stay at home to provide childcare.

We can’t let government failures be used to browbeat us into accepting unsafe working conditions. Look at the data. The UK situation is stark.

Unless we remain firm, infections and deaths will continue to rise. That is of no help to anyone.

The National Education Union (NEU) and other unions urgently need to agree a set of minimum conditions for school safety and take the action necessary to make sure that they are met.

  • Check out for more from Socialist Party members in education

What we need to do now

1. Don’t compromise on school safety – we have to stop the spread of Covid

The points agreed by an emergency meeting of the NEU’s national health and safety CV-19 group on 6 January are a good starting point. They include:

Minimum two-metre social distancing in classrooms to sufficiently reduce pupil numbers

Specific maximum numbers will depend on the size and type of rooms and workplaces. However, during the spring 2020 lockdown, a maximum 10% of normal pupils/staff capacity was recommended. The new variant is significantly more transmissible

Where lateral flow testing centres are set up, negative results should not change any existing isolation measures since they may be false negatives

Clinically extremely vulnerable and clinically vulnerable members and pregnant staff should work from home as well as those living with clinically extremely vulnerable family members

Rooms must be well ventilated with extra heaters provided if necessary

Every staff member should be allowed to deliver remote learning from home, and numbers in school should be kept to absolute minimum

All staff work should be workload-impact risk-assessed, and staff workload overall managed appropriately

2. Get ‘ballot-ready’ for action to defend health, safety, welfare and workload

NEU branch officers have been advised that, if workplaces are unsafe, then Section 44 still applies

If your workplace is unsafe, urgently seek advice on the wording of a letter to submit to assert your rights to a safe workplace

Union groups should also request urgent school or employer-wide ballots for strike and non-strike action over safety and workload. Union branch officers have been assured that these will be organised on as rapid a timescale as possible, although government laws mean that the ballot process will still take over a month

Urgently request membership lists and check members’ home addresses to be as ‘ballot-ready’ as possible. This is vital to maximise turnout

Cover to meet emergency needs during strike action should be agreed in each case

3. Declare a national dispute with the government – and build a national ballot

The new year U-turn was won because we acted together across the NEU as a whole. The problems we still face remain ones that, above all, the government needs to resolve. That’s why we think the union should:

Demand the government negotiates a national ‘Covid conditions agreement’ that protects safety and workload for all staff

If the government refuses to negotiate an acceptable agreement, unions should declare a national dispute and build an urgent national ballot for action

Keeping nurseries open spreads virus and has disrupted our lives

Retired head of a children’s centre

This may seem comparatively minor issue. Insignificant when compared to the shocking number of deaths, poverty and homelessness arising from the appalling mishandling of this pandemic by a callous, shambolic, government, but significant when multiplied by the millions of families being affected in these small ways without a collective voice.


My son’s girlfriend is a local nursery teacher, and I have been looking after my two-year-old grandson since last June, when she had to return to work. We knew that we were taking a big health risk when we started caring for him full-time, but it was important for him to have continuity.

With the new variant now rampant, we have become more and more concerned. The action by the National Education Union (NEU), using Section 44, gave us some hope that we could finally all be safe.

She wouldn’t have to take the dangerous bus journey to work, where she cannot avoid being close to three and four-year-olds who are, understandably, not very good at hand washing or social distancing.

Unfortunately, we can’t stay at home and protect the NHS as requested! Nursery teachers and early years workers are still expected to work. In fact, many teachers are still at work, providing a service for key workers’ children and children in need.

Nursery teachers are in a difficult position because they are often the only teacher in their setting. There is no one to discuss with or to be supported by to take the Section 44 action. Individuals find it difficult to stand up to managers, even on serious breaches of health and safety.

By invoking Section 44, encouraging teachers to take individual action, but en masse, the NEU had out-manoeuvred the government, shut schools and provided immediate protection for most teachers, with full pay.

Strike ballot

In my son’s girlfriend’s case case, balloted strike action would be better. It would enable her to withdraw her labour immediately.

The union could negotiate a fair system for covering essential services that didn’t place vulnerable workers or their families at risk – which they should be doing anyway.

Very reluctantly we are having to withdraw from caring for our grandson, because of our age vulnerability. It is heartbreaking for us, and tragic for our grandson who won’t understand what’s happened.

But how ironic, a key worker, his mother, is forced to care for other key workers’ children, while her child’s care has been completely disrupted.

Home schooling is hard, it’s a Tory failure

Lindsey Morgan, parent and Leicester Socialist Party member

The U-turn over schools by the Tories was forced by the graft of National Educational Union (NEU) members. It is a victory for all of us.

But there is no getting away from just how difficult this latest lockdown is for parents now having to home-school children. Years of austerity, poverty, and cuts to services have left many parents exhausted.

Some school classrooms are over 50% full still, due to the government massively widening the category of ‘key workers’. But many working-class parents still have to try and balance working from home and home-schooling.

Teachers have worked incredibly hard to improve the quality of home learning, including live lessons and timetables which help those children that need the structure of a school day. But it’s about time the government did much more to support us in terms of resources.

Some students are going into school because they don’t have access to IT at home. This could be pretty easily solved – provide students with the devices they need and free broadband.

Parents have been given awful food packages, which private companies charge schools £30 to make up, but which include less than a tenner’s worth of ingredients. This is shameful.

We need money for the extra electric, gas, and supplies. It costs having students at home.

We need real social distancing in classrooms when students do return, and a rota system so that we don’t have the infuriating hassle of never knowing from one week to the next if your child will be in school the next day because the schools are so unsafe.

If the government had listened to the workers themselves regarding the health and safety of their workplaces, and the leadership of the NEU had stuck to its original demands on school safety, we could be in a completely different situation with the virus.

Instead, parents who want their children and the rest of the family to be safe face further exhaustion and economic hardship because of Tory callous incompetence. As with everything, this government won’t simply give us the resources that we need.

We need to unite and fight to make sure that there is no full return to school until it is safe, and that all home-schooling is properly resourced.

School support staff: fear ignited into anger

Vicky Perrin Calderdale Unison lead school steward (personal capacity)

We take no lectures from the Tories about vulnerable children missing more school. They have slashed special educational needs and disability and pastoral budgets.

With infection rates rising, we as education workers knew there was no choice. It wasn’t safe to reopen schools fully.

At the National Education Union (NEU) historic Zoom meeting, 400,000 education workers got the shot in the arm needed to say ‘no’. It gave school support staff massive confidence to be acting alongside teacher colleagues, with the National Association of Head Teachers clearly supporting the stand we were taking also.

Stewards’ group chats went into overdrive over the weekend of 2-3 January. The Section 44 letter was circulated and discussed, and we used employment law with our unions’ backing to refuse to work in unsafe schools.

Fear soon ignited into anger when, having allowed children to return to school for a day and mix with their friends and staff post-Christmas, we forced the government to say they should be shut.

Our battle with this government for safe schools is far from over. Pupil numbers in schools are currently climbing far beyond those of last spring’s lockdown – pushed by the Tories compromising safety.

The fight continues and we know what winning feels like.

Oaks Park School, north east London NEU – 1 Bullying management – 0

National Education Union (NEU) members at Oaks Park School in north east London have secured a victory over health and safety.

With the backing of Labour-controlled Redbridge Council, the school wanted to force workers to travel and go into school with hundreds of others, simply to deliver online lessons from an empty classroom. This unnecessarily risked the chances of those workers catching Covid-19.

The school said it would discipline any staff who refused, including pregnant workers and those with a disability.

The anger was such that the union decided to consult members for a borough-wide strike, which would have halted all education across the borough.

Glenn Kelly, regional officer for the NEU, said: “Given that we have one in 30 Londoners infected with the virus, given that the NHS is overrun, why would Oaks Park School and Redbridge Council be willing to gamble with the lives of these workers and their families?

“Our members across the borough are teaching key-worker and vulnerable children in person. They are delivering online teaching to thousands of children.

“Why was this school making staff take a risk just to deliver an online lesson, when most teachers across the county are being allowed to do this from the safety of their homes? This is nothing other than bullying, and it is a scandal that a Labour council is backing such measures.

“I am pleased to say that the school and the council have now backed down due to the brave stance of the NEU members standing firm, and the backing the rest of the union branch gave. There can be no excuse to force workers to risk their lives, just to sit in an empty classroom to deliver online lessons.

“NEU 1. Bullying management 0.”