Rob Owen argues that the NEU has won a convincing, but not complete, victory over the government and addresses how we develop workplace organisation in the coming weeks.
The Cummings saga has seen the cabinet rally around Johnson and double down on a ‘press ahead – everything’s fine here’ strategy. The government’s plan to bring more students into primary schools, due to be assessed against the ‘science’ on Thursday 28 May, was instead confirmed the preceding Sunday in a desperate attempt to displace Cummings from news agendas. By Thursday it was clear, if it were ever in doubt, that the notion the government was ‘following the science’ over wider school reopening was nothing but spin. The recently launched Joint Biosecurity Centre maintained an ‘alert level’ of 4, which by the government’s own system means existing measures should remain in place. At the government press conference Johnson announced the launch of a ‘world beating’ track and trace system on the same day that the head of the programme told MPs it would not be operational until the end of June. By this lunchtime four prominent members of SAGE had spoken out over the ‘political decision’ to loosen lockdown and fears it could result in a second wave.
On the ground the government’s plans to open primaries to nursery, reception, year one and year six were already in tatters. By this weekend over 60 local authorities (LAs) had publicly sided with the National Education Union (NEU) and sister education unions in challenging the government’s plans. Many had advised their own schools not to reopen until a later date. Many multi-academy trusts (MATs) had followed their lead in delaying opening. Even those, like my own, that pledged to ‘open on 1 June’, did so with proposals that bore little relation to those of the Department for Education – usually with smaller groups of students, less year groups and more developed health and safety measures.
The NEU strategy
The NEU has rightly been seen as being central in resistance to the government’s plans. Our joint general secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney have been all over the national media propounding a clear message over our five tests and opposition to the “rushed and reckless” proposals. The Union’s clear firm stance enabled us to rally a coalition of all the education unions behind our tests which has held together despite an onslaught from the national media. A combination of political pressure and coalition building led to an unprecedented number of local authorities (responsible for running the majority of primary schools) to pledge not to open on 1 June. In areas where local authorities have spoken out NEU activists and groups have been able to leverage wider community support and engagement of members to hold school leaders to not rushing into a 1 June opening under government pressure.
There was also a recognition that this was the time to ‘open the doors of the union’ with over 10,000 joining in a few weeks. Near weekly the union held mass online ‘town hall’ meetings where the General Secretaries could speak directly to members and answer questions – the largest over 20,000 – there was a call out for members to step forwards to become rapidly trained school reps with over 2,000 new reps recruited since lockdown. The strategy for school level organising was spelt out more tentatively but geared around health and safety legislation to press over risk assessments and the argument that without a lower rate of infections and a working ‘track and trace’ then no local risk assessment could meaningfully limit the risk of transmission to a safe level. There was a roll-out of rapid ‘health and safety rep’ training and the implication that ‘section 44 rights’ (individual right to refuse to work in an unsafe environment) could be used collectively at a local level.
In my own chain, we had appointed all our reps as ‘health and safety reps’ and run basic training within a week of the government announcement, negotiated a process for working through risk assessments (for any future opening), recruited numerous new reps and held a second all members meeting of over 240 a day after the 20,000 strong national all members meeting, demanding the chain delay opening any schools for at least a week to get processes properly in place.
Ballot for action?
However, the increase in activism and reps did not fully translate into an increased school-level organisation. As a union, we have yet to adequately work through how confidence and organisation at a school level could be built to realise a strategy around health and safety. The gap between supporting vulnerable staff in exercising their individual right to work from home and the wider political question of action over the risk to ‘public health’ was and is vast. It is the difference between individuals acting out of fear for themselves or their families and politically confident school workers acting collectively for the public good. The absence of a widespread pre-existing tradition of networked school groups capable of sustaining the level of politics and confidence needed to see this through meant that there needed to be a conscious, organised intervention to try and rapidly generate one.
A national ballot, carefully conceived, could have played a role in crystallising a focus on workplace organisation and confidence over the political question of public health. Framed in the right way, a focus on school group discussion relating the national political strategy to workplace action, a ballot campaign could have acted alongside the focus on health and safety anchoring it more coherently within the national political campaign. The argument for a ballot needed to be strategic and nuanced given that the NEU has failed to hit the anti-union law ‘threshold turnouts’ twice in recent years, the difficulty in framing the ballot question, and issues over timescale. Despite these issues, if called quickly, it could have significantly boosted our capacity at a workplace level.
Bar a scattering of individuals the question of a ballot, or organisational difficulties at a school level was scarcely raised within the Union. The main union left coalition – ‘the NEU Left’ – tends to conceive of its role as mobilising activists to realise strategies passed by the executive. The larger revolutionary groups within it threw themselves behind the executive strategy without raising any wider questions. One left executive member (and a smaller union left grouping) did raise a demand for a ballot but did so in opposition to the positive wider strategy of the union without a worked-through strategy for how it would build our capacity.
The weaknesses of the left within the union are rooted in wider structural issues within the NEU. The union’s leadership, arguably the best in the UK trade union movement, has successfully put the union at the fore of fighting over wider political questions for years and built an impressive activist base. Yet, as recognised by the executive itself, this had deepened a pre-existing imbalance within the union between our large activist base and our level of workplace organisation. The Union’s structures rest on geographic districts (based upon local authorities) with a dynamic focused more around casework, union campaigns and conferences than developing networks of reps and school-based organisation.
Since the formation of the NEU, there have been moves to correct this and develop employer-based branches around networks of reps and school groups negotiating with management. These projects are mostly still in their infancy although we took an important step forwards in holding a national meeting of lead reps across them a few weeks ago. Some districts have now begun applying the model across local authority schools in their localities but most have not progressed beyond loose WhatsApp groups.
This imbalance played out in the union’s response; positively in the clarity of the national line and growing activist base but negatively in the lack of clarity over developing collective strength at a school level.
Kevin and Mary – national impact
We need to celebrate what is a partial victory over the government. At several points, including just before the 11 May announcement of 1 June opening, the NEU leadership seemed on the brink of forcing a government climb down. The NEU’s experience of engaging in radical political campaigning enabled us to rally around a broad coalition and give it real political backbone. Kevin and Mary were on nearly every news broadcast pulling apart the government’s case and the Union built confidence through mass meetings and social media campaigns sharing every success. While the government stuck to its official message the reality behind their claims collapsed as their own incompetence – for example with 41 revisions to school reopening guidance issued in a week – provided a space for school leaders locally to peel way from a 1 June opening towards the NEU position.
The coalition built, combined with the mass mobilisation of activists behind local districts, has enabled the NEU-led campaign to leave the government plans for 1 June in tatters. This has scored a victory in defence of public health and leaving ministers claims for 1 June looking increasingly hollow and hedged. It has also scaled back plans for secondary schools and colleges, specifying that only years 10 and 12 should receive some ‘face to face’ contact from 15 June.
The strength of the national campaign has given schools reps the confidence to press (or support) principals and headteachers to push back and scale down proposed reopening while putting in place much more developed health and safety than that proposed by the government. Across the country, school reps have done brilliantly but this has sometimes been despite confusing messaging from the union centrally.
At first, no guidance was given to reps on what to do at a school level beyond supporting the national campaign to say 1 June was too soon and to not engage with local preparations. The truly unhelpful strategy was proposed to ‘negotiate by not negotiating’, cutting against the work that had gone into forcing regular discussions between union reps and headteachers at a school level. The confusion over how to engage with schools preparing risk assessments for 1 June to generate collective discussions about their inability to overcome the national failure over the ‘five tests’ was never addressed. In areas where the LA was not opposing 1 June openly, or in MATs geared towards 1 June, activists were left with no strategy for translating support for the NEU’s national position into strong school organisation capable of taking action. Initiatives like a poorly-framed ‘letter to not engage in preparations for 1 June’ emerged from nowhere without any clarity of how it related to either schools where the head was resistant to engaging with the Unions or where they were supportive – so often did more harm than good.
Significantly there was apparently little thought to how we built our strength in academy chains or local authorities where we had not succeeded in getting a centralised commitment to back away from 1 June. The checklist (for risk assessing future reopening) emerged too close to half term to be used meaningfully and alongside mixed and confusing messaging as to its purpose. In chains like my own, where we were strong enough for the employer to have presented risk assessments similar to our checklist, reps were placed in a situation that was difficult to navigate. In the absence of a school-level strategy that had built up a clearly collective political position, reps faced the difficulty of challenging reopening when substantial school level concessions over health and safety had been won, having encouraged members to not engage in finding out what was being proposed. The confusion left reps following their own instincts and risked weakening school groups when we should have been focused on strengthening them.
Building our strength
The lack of a serious school-level strategy meant it was hard to acknowledge early enough that there was not the confidence for a widespread use of ‘section 44’ based on the national failures of the government in most schools. Not acknowledging this, or articulating a strategy to rectify it, in schools where some form of 1 June opening had become an accepted fact among staff was disarming – but it does not have to be. While we do not have the capacity to stop some schools reopening in limited form on 1 June, we can develop our capacity to control how it happens and significantly how we shut them down if our fears over public health come tragically true.
We need a national focus on establishing a weekly (online) health and safety committee and separate joint meetings of union reps and school leadership in every school. Our reps need to be supported in maintaining collective support for every member of staff exercising their right to work from home – against any developing sense of ‘letting down those going in’ – if staffing is short then pupil numbers must be reduced to correspondingly safe levels.
For staff working on-site there need to be regular (online) meetings to raise and collectivise any slippage away from maintaining social distancing and sharing the best practice (2m distancing at all times, groups much smaller than the DfE recommended 15) to be fed by reps into the health and safety committees to exert collective control over staff and pupils’ safety.
Regular union meetings should also review what is happening in schools, which pupils are being supported on-site and why. Is it educationally useful? Is it the most disadvantaged? How does the relative risk balance against the national spread of the virus? Rolling out this process, generalising best practice and pushing back worst, can build our collective power in both the schools opening on 1 June and those delaying plans until it is safe.
We need to shift our focus towards networking reps with the aim of preparing for the long and difficult task of rebuilding our collective power to shape what will be a long and gradual process of reopening schools safely – including shutting them back down when necessary. The question of 1 June will soon be behind us – the struggle to reshape schools in a post-pandemic world is yet to come.
Rob Owen is lead rep for the National Education Union in one of the UK’s largest multi-academy trusts.