Why schools can’t ‘reopen’ until safe

Rob Owen explains why teachers, not ministers, must be central to judging how and when it’s safe to return.

Rows of orange chairs in an empty classroom.
Photo by Bima Rahmanda

Speculation about schools returning has been a daily, and unsettling, feature of a teacher’s life during the past few weeks. Papers have seized on any comment from ministers or preliminary piece of research to splash stories across the front pages about which year groups will be returning to ‘normal schooling’. 

Schools have become a key battleground with members of the cabinet, backed by the most rabidly libertarian wing of the Tory party, pushing for school reopening as a step towards forcing people back to work. The evidence it is safe to do so is scant, and studies suggesting schools are not sites where the infection is spread between households are based on weak evidence which is often wilfully misreported. Much has been made of research into the number of transmissions from 18 cases in schools within Australia’s New South Wales without mentioning school numbers were plummeting as the state government had told parents to keep students at home.

The drive by sections of the UK government to reopen schools has nothing to do with public health or ‘best scientific evidence.’ Widespread talk of the ‘R number’ (the number of people each person with a disease passes it onto) staying below one ignores the equally, if not more important figure, of the high number of infectious cases in the UK. Any attempt to loosen measures before this figure is genuinely suppressed will mean at best sustaining the current high level of infection or at worst seeing numbers increase exponentially from a high base leading to an increased second wave (as shown by recent modelling applied to Italy).

Tragically Labour ministers provided the political cover for the current drive to reopen schools before it was safe with a misguided argument about the urgency of reopening schools to tackle disadvantage. While it is true that it is the most disadvantaged that suffer most from being out of school it is also true that they, and their families will be the worst hit by any second wave. As Mary Bousted (joint general secretary of the NEU) recently argued the real driver of the disadvantage gap is the austerity measures driven by this government.

Never closed

Something almost absent from the debate is that schools have been working full time to play an important social role during this crisis. At my own school and thousands of others, teachers have been working collectively to explore ways of supporting remote learning and redesigning curriculum to reflect the slower pace of what can be accessed at home without the face to face support of a teacher. Schools have maintained pastoral contact – connecting with students at home to check on their wellbeing and filling the gaps left by struggling children’s social services teams.

Schools responded well before the disastrous ‘free school meals voucher scheme’ to ensure meals were delivered to those most in need. It was schools, not the government, who pressed for the scheme to be run through Easter and consistently raised the alarm that our efforts were being undermined, not supported, by the central government initiative.

Significantly schools have always remained open to support those most in need, to look after the most vulnerable and care for the children of key workers. In every school I have been in contact with the number of teachers volunteering has meant rotas being put in place with no one having to go in more than once every few weeks.

Transforming schools

In my own chain, and across the sector, we (members of the National Education Union) recognised quickly that schools could not, and should not, be run in the old way. The culture of schools micromanaged by closed-off senior leadership teams had to give way to a more open and collective way of agreeing how we moved forwards. In our MAT (multi-academy trust) we quickly signed a joint statement with the chain agreeing to hold weekly national negotiations and asking headteachers and reps to set up similar structures in every school. Our argument was that if teachers and school staff were part of making choices about how we responded to the crisis then many more staff would feel confident to contribute what they could around their own circumstances. The process has not been without its local difficulties, even within our own chain, as some school leaders struggled to adapt to changed circumstances. 

There has been a small but significant sea change in how schools have been run. The majority have seen a more collaborative approach cut away at years of accountability measures and performance management. Many have seen genuine leadership and union discussions happening weekly allowing problems to be dealt with and staff to work more comfortably around their circumstances. It’s also thrown into the air various common sense assumptions about the main roles of schools and asserted a degree of good sense in its place. One reason the NEU has grown in numbers and capacity is the combination of a firm and militant line over public health and recognising the possibility of pressing forward a cultural shift in schools.

Pushing back

The education unions, and the NEU in particular, have thrown everything at keeping teachers and students safe during the crisis. Internally the NEU has held near-weekly mass ‘town hall’ meetings of reps and built an impressive online tool kit to train reps up to deal with negotiating locally. Nationally be it the NEU’s ‘no reopening until safe’ or other unions ‘no opening until September’ the unions have held an unwaveringly hard line. The NEU produced ‘5 tests’ for reopening that have since been expanded to country, local and school level minimum demands. Public petitions against reopening have attracted a huge response and polling has consistently shown overwhelming public support – despite the best efforts of the press, the Tories and Keir Starmer to chip away at it.

There has also been unprecedented cooperation between the major unions with all TUC unions in schools signing a powerful letter to the government yesterday demanding a series of demands are met before we’ll agree to schools opening. Unusually we’ve met with a large degree of support from several large school trusts and the National Association of Head Teachers held its (possibly largest ever) members meeting echoing the demands made by the main teachers’ unions. While the central thrust of our arguments is over public health, and safety at work, there is also a huge concern that partial opening is unworkable – throwing a wrecking ball into recently developed remote learning and support systems by launching parallel onsite provision for a fraction of students.

We can’t rely on the national negotiations alone to fend off a loosening of health measures – not least because at some point schools will reopen. Within my chain we have decided as reps to all take on the ‘health and safety’ role and train ourselves up in the skills needed to assess and check school’s plans against our union’s minimum standards. We are working with the Trust to develop a process that will embed reps’ role as both a part of discussions around the why and how of school opening as well as a safeguard against schools reopening in an unsafe manner. 

A fantasy of social distancing

Starting to think about applying basic social distancing in schools throws the impracticality of recent announcements into stark relief. At the best of times, children are far less socially distant than adults and schools have been based on the maxim of ‘the maximum number in the smallest space’ for many years with class numbers often over 30. A conservative assessment of most classrooms would suggest a maximum of 5-6 students could be in a room while 2 metres apart. This means a full class would have to be (on average) split across 6 rooms. Corridors are often narrow with thousands of students having to pass through them in short transitions. Few schools have the resources for ‘one each’ of anything nor a means of enforcing distancing in the unstructured time students need for their own mental health. Reopening would mean a tiny minority of students being on-site for little educational gain but major disruption and stress to students, teachers and the remote provision most will still rely on. This is before addressing the many and complex issues of managing early years students or those with complex needs.

Political judgments

Our central principle is that teachers must have a central role in making decisions about what is safe and what risk is reasonable in balancing against educational need. Amongst school staff, there is an overwhelming majority who know it is far too soon to open up schools without risking a second wave. But there will come a time when it is safe to take small steps forwards and we must fight to put the structures in place to allow teachers to shape those decisions. When it is time for schools to reopen any system capable of maintaining even the mildest of social distancing in schools will be impossible to develop without the voice of teachers experienced in their setting.

Thirty-one thousand vulnerable students have been identified nationally as having been placed in extreme need during the crisis and there needs to be a discussion in every school about how we better reach them in the coming weeks within the existing guidelines. In doing so we need to be clear that it was the decades of cuts to children’s social services and the welfare state that created the desperate need of these young people. 

There is no case for a partial reopening of schools until our national tests are met but even when they are, local discussions will need to take place. Increasing student numbers might help employers drive parents back into unsafe workplaces but will do nothing to enhance educational provision. Teachers and staff have been inspirational in using schools’ resources to support students and communities during the crisis – support our efforts to stop the government doing further damage to education and public health.

Rob is lead rep for the National Education Union in one of the UK’s largest multi-academy trusts.


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