I taught in an Islington primary school for 23 years and was NUT Rep there for most of those. My biggest struggle was persuading teachers, who were clearly too ill to teach, to go home and recover. It was a struggle because the only teachers I encountered were those whose care for children’s safety and wellbeing was absolutely paramount. I’m sure that hasn’t changed since I retired in 2015.
When I mobilised teachers to take occasional industrial action, they did this with a heavy heart, as children would be directly affected. But I convinced them that the children would benefit from being taught by teachers motivated by self-respect, who do not give into government bullying or vilification by right-wing media.
That bullying and vilification has increased as the NEU (merger of NUT with ATL) have shown resolve, tactical nous, and impressive unity in pushing their Five Tests campaign against the Tories’ reckless race to reopen schools to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 classes. The NEU has won support from the BMA, and, according to surveys, from most parents too. On 18 May, nearly 20,000 teachers logged into an NEU Zoom-call to answer practical questions and advance the campaign.
Teachers know that health workers and transport workers have died after contracting COVID-19 while working with inadequate PPE. They do not wish to enlarge that list of “martyrs” because of government failures or ideological choices that prioritise “the economy” over safety, profits over health. If teachers contract it at school, they will take it home to their families. Many children they teach, especially in poorer areas, live in overcrowded, multi-generational family accommodation.
Teachers also know that young children cannot stick to safe social distancing and will be quickly bored in classrooms stripped of stimulating collective materials such as books, toys and games.
We expected the right-wing media to help the government divert attention away from failings in its COVID-19 responses by promoting a “popular” battle with the union, but I worry that Labour’s response has not countered the government’s assumptions and priorities strongly enough. Nor has it shown the instinctive respect for union members’ concerns that characterised Corbyn’s leadership.
On 13 April, the NEU launched its petition to the Prime Minister opposing any wider re-opening of schools until it was safe, and demanding details of the Government’s scientific modelling for assessing risks, and their plans for extensive testing, contact tracing and quarantine.
One week later, with the infection rate still rising, Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change proposed that, as Britain moved forward, “Schools could open first”, since “the economic and education costs of school closure are high.” Simultaneously, Keir Starmer made similar arguments, prioritising school re-opening in his “exit strategy”. But the strategy we needed was to suppress rather than manage Corona-virus. Perhaps Starmer now regrets it.
Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner have indicated support for the NEU’s Five Tests, as have several local authorities including Islington’s. As we approach the Government’s arbitrary 1st June “deadline” – with all that word’s haunting inferences in this case – we urgently need Keir Starmer to unite with Rayner, Long-Bailey, parents and the NEU to block this reckless act.
by David Rosenberg, Political Education Officer, Islington North CLP and Committee Member, Islington NEU