The Department for Education has finally released data on the Covid infection rates of teachers and teaching assistants in English school settings. Infection levels double among primary, secondary, and special school teachers compared to the general population, and for teaching assistants and other staff often employed on precarious and outsourced contracts, the rate is three times higher in primary schools, and almost seven times higher in special schools.
These numbers highlight how unsafe schools have been for workers, pupils, and the communities in which they operate. Before the National Education Union forced schools to be included in the January lockdown, primary and secondary age school children had the highest positive case rates in the country. The government’s own scientific advisors stated that households infections were seven times more likely to be introduced by children than adults.
Schools have driven the post-October wave of infections, creating fertile ground for the breeding and mutation of the virus. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that a more transmissible variant could have been avoided if education staff’s concerns had been taken more seriously.
This begs some questions. The government has, then, been collecting the figures on school staff infection rate: why was the data not released earlier? Why have ministers and PHE constantly assured school staff that they are in no greater danger of catching Covid than the general population?
The answer is twofold. It lies first in the UK state’s inability to meet the needs of its citizens, and second, in political ideology.
Schools are a sticking plaster on the crumbling edifice of capitalism. They provide free meals for otherwise starving children, social care that masks a decade of austerity, and free childcare for bosses. When they close, the reality of these issues is highlighted for everyone to see.
The government, desperate for yet another confected culture war, has expended significant political capital in ensuring schools remain open at all costs. In order to do so, medical figureheads like the Chief and Deputy Medical Chief Officers have been used to give scientific credibility to government positions. This includes defending large sporting events in March, downplaying the dangers of fully reopening schools in September, and even this week, still maintaining that school workers were at no greater risk of infection – only to be contradicted by the Department of Education the following day.
On safety issues, it is clear that the trade union movement and not the capitalist class holds health in the highest regard. So now that the government has finally acknowledged schools as major sites of infection, and accepted that education workers are at greater risk, why is the number of outbreaks in education settings on the rise again?
Nurseries were not included in the January lockdown, just as less organised workplaces with one foot in the private sector have remained open in many parts of the country. As a result, the infection rates in this youngest age group are rising while falling in other categories.
The government expanded the eligibility of those receiving key worker and vulnerable provision for children in schools in December. It was a cynical move pitting those demanding safe class sizes against precarious workers, and one that covers up the government’s failure to provide households with digital devices – not to mention a broader lack of digital infrastructure and increasingly poor housing conditions.
This problem has been exacerbated by bosses prioritising profit and beckoning workers to provide grist for the mill, despite the new lockdown. More than one in nine workers said they had been ordered back to their workplace when they could have worked from home, further increasing the number of children in schools. It’s workplaces that are spreading infections – yet not a single business has been prosecuted for unsafe workplace practice. Instead, the government is deflecting attention onto considerably safer activities like walking in parks and drinking coffee.
The outcome is five times the number of children in primary and secondary schools compared to the Spring lockdown. This will result in the number of cases and deaths falling significantly slower than it should – hence the government’s relentless focus on its vaccination programme, to deflect attention from what is now the highest death rate in the world.
But what of education bosses, particularly multi-academy trusts keen to tow the government line to support their academisation aspirations? In some schools, the continued threat of Ofsted inspections (a neoliberal accountability measure in schools) has driven ‘high quality teaching and learning’ at the expense of health and safety: for example, some schools following unclear government advice and refusing to allow education workers to wear PPE in the classroom.
Other schools have assumed that the curriculum will remain untouched beyond this year and—with the added pressures of performance-related pay and school league tables—have ratcheted up the expectations around digital learning. This has involved demanding that education workers deliver live lessons for 20+ hours per week while simultaneously planning, marking, and teaching in-person for key worker and vulnerable students. Some schools have even been hosting ‘virtual detentions’ for students struggling to cope during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
So as education workers and trade unionists, what is to be done? In the immediate, the task is organising our workplaces: setting demands on health and safety, including class sizes, PPE, and remote learning. The National Education Union has released a checklist that facilitates rank-and-file collective bargaining, and a ‘remote learning hub’ where workers can share pedagogical and organising methods.
And our demands when lockdown ends? The government cannot be trusted to reopen schools when it is safe – its priorities will be driven by the profits of bosses and landlords. As the Department for Education infection rate data illustrates, schools that are fully open in poorly ventilated buildings will inevitably drive infection rates over time. Education unions should demand an agreed safe level of infection rates, a rota system to reduce class sizes, and education worker prioritisation for vaccinations.
The pandemic has sharpened the inequalities which exist in the education system: the profit the capitalist class makes from grammar and private schools, greater internet access, inequalities reproduced in our examination system, child poverty, and the outsourcing of education workers on zero-hour contracts has been made more clear than ever.
As such, it’s not enough to organise solely and defensively on health and safety. It’s crucial that we politicise offensively through radical workplace organising so that education workers connect the dysfunction in the education system to failures of capitalism. This, of course, will not be possible without safe workplaces.
That’s the goal for socialists in the education system: to build on the increased workplace militancy we’re seeing in schools (tens of thousands of education workers handed Section 44 notices to employers earlier this month, and 20,000 workers have joined the National Education Union), to build bonds of solidarity between workplaces and communities, and to build the capacity of workers to engage in the democratic running of workplaces, resulting in an education system built on critical pedagogy – one that values co-development and critical thinking, and equips young people with the tools to transform and liberate our world.