The National Education Union (NEU) forced another massive government U-turn in January – delaying the unsafe full reopening of schools. But the fight over safety, workload, pay and jobs is not over. Below, two teachers explain the ongoing struggles.

Empty Classroom

Empty Classroom   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)


When the government gave in and closed the schools, it never really closed them. They have remained open to vulnerable children and children of key workers.

But now they have extended the definition of ‘key worker’ and ‘vulnerable’. ‘Vulnerable’ now includes those who don’t have access to online learning.

It shows up again that the government never fulfilled its promise to provide laptops or other technology to children who need it. In Newham, almost every child can be counted as vulnerable – in an overcrowded home, no access to a laptop, sharing a phone with siblings.

Newham Council had planned to end their provision of free school meals. Under pressure from campaigners it will now continue.

You have to fight for absolutely everything. Why are we fighting a Labour council for free school meals?

Union pressure

We have spent the whole week trying to hold back the push to open nurseries more fully to pupils. The government left out nurseries and special schools when they finally U-turned and ‘closed’ primary and secondary schools. Our pressure has lowered the numbers attending.

The situation for nurseries is complicated. Each nursery’s funding is based on the number of children attending their nursery on the census day, Thursday 21 January.

Funding for nurseries, even outside of Covid, is a massive problem. Many nurseries could cease to exist.

In the National Education Union (NEU), we have been campaigning on this for some time. But everything is being exposed by Covid.

Through the health and safety and risk assessments we had won, the local authority was mostly agreeing with us for nurseries to do the same as other schools – and only have key worker and vulnerable children. Then, all of a sudden, there was this huge push.

NEU members in nurseries began contacting us. They said headteachers were telling them that they are being pressured by the local authority officers to get as many children in as possible for the census day. The council was telling the NEU one thing, and the nurseries another.

Finally, on Wednesday evening before census day, the Department for Education, under pressure from unions, agreed that they would top up the funding for children not present. By that time it was too late as the drive to increase numbers had already happened.

We recruited more members to the union that week, especially in nursery schools. Nurseries that are attached to primary schools are more likely to have an active NEU group, and so are more likely to have restricted the numbers attending.

And we have been recruiting workplace reps in the five or six standalone nursery schools in Newham. We have got them organised and are now looking to survey our members over whether to take action to ensure that nurseries are not fully open.

The government has now finally admitted that this new variant could be more fatal and more transmissible. I have been dealing with members in nurseries who are over 60. They don’t feel safe working with limited numbers of key worker and vulnerable children, let alone having all children in. We need to protect members like this in our workplaces as well as in the wider community.

Louise Cuffaro, Newham NEU branch secretary

Industrial action ballot to ensure a safe full return of schools

The damage caused by the privatisation of most supply teaching has left many agency staff at severe financial risk. Too many agencies will not even agree to furlough.

Schools should not be looking to save money at the expense of supply teachers, especially not those where a long-term engagement had previously been agreed. Department for Education guidance confirms that agency staff can be used for remote and face-to-face teaching.

Support staff are under some of the greatest pressure. Some school rotas insist that support staff are in school all the time, while teachers are more likely to be allowed to work from home.

We must insist on equality of treatment. The new joint-union checklist says: “Systems should be in place to ensure a fair balance across the whole staff in respect of working from home and working on site”.

Some schools are using the lockdown as an opportunity to launch restructuring proposals where support staff jobs are particularly at threat. Collective action will be needed to oppose cuts and defend education and jobs.

Many schools recognise the difficult and stressful circumstances in which educators and pupils are working.

But some poor managers still seem unable to prevent themselves putting staff under unacceptable pressure through unreasonable workload demands and/or inappropriate monitoring of online learning.

Once again, a collective response is the best way.

Government guidance in January risked turning lateral-flow testing into a mechanism that would help to increase transmission rates instead of cutting them.

If staff or students were found to be a close contact of a positive case, they could agree to continue to attend school, rather than self-isolate. Instead, they would take daily lateral-flow tests to make sure that they remain ‘negative’.

Unsafe proposal

Such a suggestion would have obvious attractions to staff and parents as it appears to provide a safe way to ensure teaching and learning is not disrupted. But it was absolutely not a safe proposal. Any member of staff pressured like this should seek urgent union advice.

Yes, the lateral-flow tests can be useful to detect additional asymptomatic positive cases, that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, but they are absolutely not reliable enough to be used as an alternative to isolation.

The education unions – NEU, GMB, Unison and Unite – have agreed a joint ‘checklist for partial opening’. I have produced a summary at

NEU joint general secretaries, Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, say the union “will back every workplace group that feels the need to take action”. They mention two forms of action to make sure the checklist is stuck to:

1) Moving quickly towards a ballot for industrial action

2) Union backing for members who use Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 – refusing to work in an unsafe workplace

As the New Year U-turn showed, we can make gains when we stand together across a workplace, or a group of workplaces. But we are even stronger when we act together as a whole union.

With the NHS still under huge pressure, none of us knows how long this period of ‘partial reopening’ will need to last. But it’s clear that the government wants to try and fully open schools as soon as they can.

We must again make clear that full opening must be only when it’s safe to do so. If we launch a ballot for national action now, it could help make sure we have the safeguard of an action mandate in place. It might be needed to oppose an unsafe return.

Martin Powell-Davies, candidate in the NEU deputy general secretary election