It took all of seven weeks for the Tories and their cheerleaders in the right-wing press to go from clapping workers to attacking them. Their target this time is teachers, and their excuse for the attacks is the response of teaching unions to Boris Johnson’s announcement on Sunday that pupils would be returning to school on June 1st.
In his announcement the Prime Minister laid out what he called his ‘roadmap’ for a return to normality after the lockdown. A key part of his plan is for a phased reopening of schools which is slated to begin after the half term, with reception, year one and year six returning in primary schools and examination classes getting what was described as “face-to-face time” at secondary and further education level.
Teachers up and down the country reacted with dismay as they considered the absurdity of trying to get 30 five-year-old children to maintain social distancing in a classroom. They were alarmed at the danger that would result – for themselves, for colleagues, for the pupils and for the pupils’ families.
Before the announcement, the government had given no clarification about how the return might be achieved. When pressed on the issue Johnson lamely and predictably suggested that people should “use their common sense.” Clearly, he has never had to manage a room full of young children.
Immediately following the announcement on Sunday the National Education Union, Britain’s largest education union representing 450,000 education workers, polled its members on their response. 49,000 teachers responded within an hour. They used their common sense and instructed the union to oppose the government’s plans.
Later in the week the heads of all the education unions – the NEU, the NASUWT, the head teachers’ union, the NAHT, and Unison – met as the TUC education group and issued a joint statement:
“We all want schools to re-open, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so. The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, sibling and relatives, and to the wider community.” It added, “We call on the government to step back from the 1st June and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools based on the principles and tests we have set out.”
The criteria of the unions included, “the safety and welfare of pupils and staff as the paramount principle. No increase in pupil numbers until full rollout of a national test and trace scheme. A national Covid-19 education taskforce with government, unions and education stakeholders to agree statutory guidance for safe reopening of schools.”
It is in response to this completely sensible concern for safety and welfare that the unions have come under attack. Today’s hysterical front page in the Daily Mail demonstrated the real intention of the wartime rhetoric the right-wing tabloids have been encouraging. “Let our teachers be heroes,” it demanded – as if deliberately ignoring scientific advice and infecting thousands of children with Covid-19 would be our generation’s equivalent of flying a spitfire.
The Mail front page was only one of a long list of Tory attack lines rolled out against the teachers. Conservative columnist Isabel Oakeshott took a particularly cynical jab when she tried to play teachers off against NHS workers – despite the fact that the doctors’ union, the British Medical Association, is standing behind the NEU in its demands.
Other attacks have come from within the labour movement and specifically the Labour Party, in the form of two former education secretaries under Tony Blair, David Blunkett and Andrew Adonis. Blunkett accused the unions of, “working against the interests of children,” while Adonis called them, “totally irresponsible.”
Neither contribution was particularly surprising. Blunkett and Adonis were key supporters of the academy schools programme which pushed creeping privatisation and marketisation of schools. This resulted in bitter battles with teachers’ unions at the time – as teachers across the country correctly realised that pushing pro-market reforms in education would have the same disastrous impacts they had in just about every other public service, including healthcare.
Right-wing attack lines against teachers’ unions – from Tories or Blairites – are nothing new. But their intention in this case is particularly despicable. Under pressure from big business interests to force through an end to the lockdown despite Britain having the highest death rate in Europe, Boris Johnson rushed his announcement on Sunday – and it is becoming increasingly clear it is unworkable. Now, there needs to be a fall guy. That, they have decided, will be teachers.
The lack of planning and recklessness in the government’s approach was exposed before the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee earlier this week. Called to give evidence, Dr. Osama Rahman, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Education, admitted that he had not even assessed how effectively the return to work could be implemented. He also acknowledged that there was a “low degree of confidence” that children transmit Covid-19 less than adults.
Boris Johnson’s rushed return is simply not based on credible scientific advice. The government’s plans give too little concern to keeping people safe, and too much to placating Johnson’s more vocal MPs on the Tory backbenchers and his backers in big business. In the face of such dangerous motivations it has fallen to the professional associations of teachers, the trade unions, to step up and stand up for the safety of teachers, pupils and their families.
Teachers understand more than anyone the negative impact the current crisis is having on children’s education. In the absence of classes, the gap in attainment between the pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds is growing. Pupils from the poorest backgrounds will be hit hardest as they’re less likely to have easy access to digital learning tools, a quiet space to study or parents who can work remotely and support them with home schooling.
The consequences of these weeks and months of lost schooling are likely to be felt for years to come. On this point, though, it is clear again that the unions are more serious than the government about finding a solution. They have specifically called for a joint taskforce for “consideration of the specific needs of vulnerable students and families facing economic disadvantage.”
The offer to work constructively to address this enormous problem is on the table. It is only those with vested interests who would try to use this argument against teachers now. Our unions have been fighting for years against educational disadvantage – where have the Tory columnists been? They have only discovered the problem after years of austerity cuts they themselves supported.
The general picture in this dispute is clear. It’s a matter of teachers with a genuine concern for the wellbeing of their pupils against a gung-ho government that is behaving in a cavalier manner about the possibility of schools producing another wave of a deadly virus. Today, union representatives are engaging in talks with the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to try to reach an agreement. Let’s hope that common sense prevails.