In recent days, the right-wing media have published a series of attacks on education unions. Beneath the inflammatory headlines is a well-versed strategy for undermining progressive education agendas – a strategy that has been employed throughout the pandemic against those who’ve dared to demand school safety.
It started, as it often does, with the Daily Mail. ‘Video of militant teachers boasting of strike threats to keep schools closed fuels fears that unions are plotting to block March 8 return,’ the headline reads. The piece suggested a Strike Map event where three NEU activists discussed strategies for winning safe workplaces was enough to make former private school head teacher (and ex-advisor to two Tory PMs) Chris McGovern ‘hugely concerned.’
A day later, it was the Telegraph. This time, the attack was directed at the ‘Hard-left unions plotting to ‘name and shame’ MPs to get teachers a pay rise’. The offence? Joint-general secretary Kevin Courtney had spoken at a TUC event aiming to encourage union members to contact their MPs to gain support for a pay rise for all key workers.
The following day, a segment of Nick Ferrari’s show on LBC purported to explore whether ‘teachers should be allowed to strike’. (Yes, is the answer – it’s a basic human right.) For the discussion, LBC brought on Bernard Trafford, another ex-private school headteacher. Despite being introduced as ‘a teacher on the frontline’, a former private school head teacher who no longer works in a school is hardly representative of the teaching profession.
Trafford duly told listeners he had concerns about the NEU and their ‘clumsy union action.’ Ferrari ignored the fact that there are no current plans to ballot nationally for strike action – though Kate Green, who was also a guest on the show, raised it repeatedly. The LBC tweet promoting the conversation received so much backlash it was deleted.
These attacks are not coincidental: they are to be expected as we approach another critical moment in the unsafe schools saga. Though plans will be confirmed on 22 February, it has been suggested that these will involve all children returning to onsite learning on 8 March.
However, with some scientists warning such a plan may push R above 1, it seems possible that school workers will once again be forced to push back and demand a less risky approach. This is not because we enjoy the confrontation (we don’t) or because we don’t want to be back fully back in school (we do). It is simply because we want plans for school reopenings to be safe and sustainable, to avoid repeating the chaos of this winter.
The Tory press strategy of preemptively undermining teachers and their unions is therefore predictable. Throughout the pandemic, the NEU has called out government recklessness and supported school workers in resisting their unsafe plans. Arguably more than any other group, unionised school workers have provided effective opposition to the government – particularly regarding their failure to follow scientific advice around lockdowns.
This is why our activists and leaders have been subjected to smears from the right-wing press. Every time we reach a key moment in the safe schools debate, the attacks return. The coverage is designed primarily to present the education unions and their members as unreasonable and self-interested, with little regard for the pupils we teach.
But these attacks rely on misleading readers. The unions’ approach throughout has aimed to balance the interests of teachers, pupils, and the communities we exist in – all of which are far more intertwined than most coverage suggests.
Such misrepresentation risks losing teachers and their unions valuable public support. It also serves to shake the confidence of education workers – there are fewer things that get under our skin more than suggestions that we do not care about our pupils.
All this sits within a wider war of disinformation and distortion that the government and media have waged around schooling in the pandemic.
Such misinformation has manifested most obviously around questions of school safety. In the face of mass school outbreaks, politicians and pundits have refused to admit that schools are sites of transmission – despite clear evidence that this is the case. The misrepresentation of science to suit a political agenda was most starkly exposed when, on 3 January, Boris Johnson insisted schools were safe, and then one day later described them as ‘vectors of transmission’ that needed to be closed.
Scientists such as Deepti Gurdasani have commented insightfully on the ways bias works against a balanced account of the science of school openings – from the inaccurate framing of research findings, to the over-reliance on studies basing rates in children on symptom-based outbreak assessment, and the general sidelining of scientists who favour a zero-covid approach.
However, this misinformation has not been limited to questions of school safety. There has been a catastrophising over the impact of remote learning on disadvantaged children rather than an attempt to shine a light on the permanent blight of child poverty, or on the government’s failures to provide the basic material resources for children to learn from home.
The focus has been placed too heavily on the loss of academic learning, sidelining arguably more serious concerns such as the lost opportunity for children to socialise, play, or spend time outdoors. All this has served to legitimise a rushed reopening of schools.
On many occasions, the media has failed us through omission. There has been a lack of honesty around the desire to keep Early Years and Primary settings open simply to provide childcare and so enable wider economic gain – though in reality this has been a huge factor driving those arguing for full returns.
Meanwhile, there has been alarmingly poor coverage of the impact Long Covid can have on children. At other times, the media has been more far-fetched – for instance, making the absurd claim that school closures have cost each child £40,000 in future earnings.
Is This a New Strategy?
Of course, there’s nothing new in the use of these tactics by the government or media, and they are not specific to the education sector. The British press have long joined the Tory party in demonising trade unions, or indeed any group which operates in the interests of ordinary working people and against those of the ultra-rich.
In the field of education, such onslaughts have historically been carried out whenever an education minister has wanted to roll through a right-wing agenda. Michael Gove was expert at using the pages of the Daily Mail to undermine progressive educators (or as he labelled them, the ‘Enemies of Promise’).
There is no doubt the media has played, and will continue to play, a huge role in shaping the schools debate. The challenge is to expose this and continue to win the argument for—as the NEU puts it—a ‘safe return and recovery’ with school workers and the public, regardless.
Educators are not fools. We saw first hand the damage caused by unsafe schools in the autumn term. We also have real expertise in our field and understand better than most politicians or journalists how the pandemic has impacted children’s well-being and learning, and how they need to be supported going forwards.
No matter how often the Daily Mail finds space in its pages to attack NEU activists and leaders, together we must continue to fight for what we know will benefit school staff, communities, and pupils.