Rob Owen argues that the National Education Union has taken a bold stand in campaigning to close primaries but needs to learn the lessons of June and launch a national strike ballot campaign.
In a recent piece on this site we outlined how the government’s handling of education has allowed Covid-19 transmission rates to rise sharply since September and why schools must prepare to run remotely until half term. Recent research from Imperial College has now added further evidence that it will be impossible to gain control of the Covid crisis while keeping schools open. Hospitals have been scrambling to find more beds as critical care facilities are over-run with Covid-19 patients, with positive case numbers yet to peak and hospitalisation trends due to follow.
True to form the government’s response to schools has been to do as little as possible as late as possible and hope the situation miraculously improves. Since Gavin Williamson’s announcement on 30 December the government has already announced hundreds more primary schools will have to close after a wave of criticism from public health officials. Yet politically, few significant forces have posed a clear alternative. The Labour Party has limited itself to criticism over efficiency and timing, saying they would have done similarly but with slightly more notice. My own union, the National Education Union (NEU), has been more assertive but has often stopped short of stating clearly that schools will have to close for longer for fear of becoming isolated from the wider coalition of education unions we have built.
The NEU national leadership has been placed in the unenviable position of leading the resistance to the government’s plans, not just of teachers but of the wider union movement. Despite difficulties the NEU has developed a huge activist base that has the capacity to win the political arguments about what needs to be done to mobilise teachers to defend education and public health.
Drawing a line in the sand
Yesterday saw over 4000 NEU workplace reps attend a Zoom webinar to discuss the crisis in schools and how to make a stand for public health. This morning saw around 100,000 join a Zoom and social media meeting. The executive outlined a much more resourced and organised approach to using ‘section 44‘ rights to refuse to work in – and shut down – unsafe workplaces. It outlined a strategy of writing to every primary member with a model letter to refuse to work on site if schools persisted with a full opening that government scientists have warned is unsafe. It was made clear that we as a union believe that section 44 applies to the safety not just of the individuals who would be entering a workplace but the wider public who could be affected.
The 4000 activists with full union support are a powerful organising base and we are relying on a rapid turnaround with members having less than 48 hours to make the decision to inform their heads they will not be attending on health and safety grounds. The next 24 hours will see us do all we can to make a worrying individual decision into a collective response of the whole profession. Yet we know we are fighting on difficult terrain with no tradition of ‘section 44’ use in education to rely on and with the fight focused on our smallest workplaces (primary schools) while members have been away from each other for two weeks. In our favour we have an overwhelming public sense that the government plans are reckless and that we have a moral purpose in taking action for the wider public good. Our campaign has been backed by the support staff union UNISON and by solidarity from the main headteachers’ unions and associations.
In the next few days, the NEU has a series of mass Zoom meetings to shape our response over the coming weeks and to mobilise our base. This requires reactivating the level of organisation we saw bloom during the first lockdown and learning lessons from our recent experience to strengthen our industrial base so we can stop schools exacerbating the scale of the pandemic.
Preparing our base for the battle ahead
The union leadership is, understandably, nervous about stepping out beyond the immediate evidence, so puts demands a few steps ahead of the government to erode their position. Yet this means the NEU leadership can mirror the government’s approach of failing to prepare and organise for the most probable eventuality. Throughout last term we tried to organise around other issues (such as pay and workload) while engaging tentatively around the erosion of health and safety measures in schools. Yet this meant we didn’t organise to politically consolidate the organisation we built in spring, and it felt like power had slipped back towards management and schools drifted towards business as usual. This was disorientating for a layer of less experienced and newer reps who lacked the practice of patiently building workplace strength and has meant we are not in as strong a position as we could have been to respond now the political terrain has shifted.
We need to be making the demand that schools prepare to run remotely all half term, based on current infection rates and the most probable trajectory. This is a necessary step in framing an argument over what schools will need to do and preparing activists to win a political consensus in our schools. Instead we are tailing the government’s own ‘review process’ in two weeks’ time to avoid isolating ourselves from potential political allies. Similarly the union has tied itself in knots over the question of mass testing for fear of being painted by our political opponents as wanting schools shut regardless. Instead of clearly arming members with the arguments they need to take apart the rationale of the government’s intentions and their probable impact, we are at pains not to be seen to oppose something we have long called for in a different form.
A national ballot ahead of any future return
Reflecting on the return of schools in June we argued that while the government’s plans collapsed, our own strategy could have better developed our strength:
“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.”
The same argument still applies but with more urgency. We have had two chances to organise and win a ballot – one in June and a second in November when pressure built for a circuit-breaker lockdown. Had we seized either moment we would now be in a stronger position to call action and overturn the government. In June we were arguing on the basis of falling case numbers and a far lower rate of infection amongst both those of school-age and the general population. Now we face surging case numbers and a situation where secondary students are seven times more likely to bring Covid into a household than an adult, with primary students not far behind. Using section 44 enables us to respond quickly to the immediate threat but is less effective in building confidence and strength than a national ballot campaign which rests more clearly on collective decision-making rather than individual confidence. A ballot would not help us in the battles over the coming days but would help build our strength and prepare us for inevitable future confrontations with the government.
The next two days are a test of strength for the union in mobilising our primary members in a rear-guard action on a question where the government is exceptionally weak. Yet it is a test of strength not on our strongest but our most challenging ground. Primary schools are small workplaces where staff often have strong bonds of loyalty to their headteachers and are being asked to take a bold individual stand having been on holiday from their colleagues for two weeks. It is right that our union is standing and fighting today, using section 44 to respond quickly, but we must also look to build our strength for the battles to come.
The next 48 hours will see all of us in the NEU thrown into frantic activity in support of our primary members. Delivering as big a response as possible over section 44 is our immediate and overwhelming priority but we also need to look ahead to the return of exam years on 11 January and the proposed return of all schools on 18 January. A ballot is a longer process, but setting it in motion this week would help us build momentum around clear demands and ensure we are in the strongest possible position to ensure decisions around schools are in the best interest of our students and communities. The battle to beat the pandemic will not be over in the next two weeks. Boris Johnson’s interview on the Marr show this morning shows the growing likelihood of a much longer shut down to bring down numbers. Our experience of this government shows they will continue to make reckless calls over our schools. They failed to listen to us and sector leaders over measures that could have worked in June and which could have averted this disaster. We need to seize this moment now to ensure we are strong enough so that they have to listen to us in the months to come.