Next steps in the fight for safe schools

NEU rep Andy Cunningham takes stock of the situation in schools after the government’s latest U-turn, and argues further mass action is needed by education workers and their allies.

Books in a school library. Keywords: school closures closed NEU National Education Union strike

On Monday last week, many teachers, parents, health workers (and anyone else who thinks the pandemic should be taken seriously) were elated at the victory won around school closures. On the back of a coordinated national campaign, and the use of Section 44 by swathes of teachers to refuse to work on the grounds of safety, Johnson’s opposition to school closures fell apart, with the Prime Minister admitting what we’ve all known for at least half a year: that schools are key vectors of transmission. This action was important; it showed what unions can do when we act together. It also saved thousands of lives.

But, as the dust settled over the battlefield, it became clear that the victory wasn’t complete. While schools have never been fully closed (staying open for the children of key workers, for example), this time they had many more children in them than during the Spring lockdown. This lockdown has seen the Government change the definition of terms like ‘key worker’ and ‘vulnerable’, creating a situation where ‘closed’ schools are much fuller than they were in Spring 2020. The reasons for this are more than just pettiness from the defeated Tories: they have consistently failed to prepare for what was clearly an inevitable return to blended learning. A string of broken promises on things such as access to broadband and laptops, school funding and appropriate notice have created an impossible position for many children, parents and schools. This is especially infuriating after an Autumn term where real measures such as attendance rotas, extra staffing, extra buildings taken over, could have halted the spread in schools and avoided the closure.

At the same time, the broadening of the definition of who is a key worker means that many more people are being forced into work by unscrupulous bosses who place profit above public health. The outcome of this is dangerous in two ways: firstly, the school shutdown and accompanying lockdown will be much longer and much less effective than in Spring. Secondly, there will be a heavy burden to bear in terms of children and those in support bubbles, which will fall disproportionately on women. Both of these consequences could be avoided if the Government was half-way competent but, sadly, they are not.

The pressure on schools around key worker and vulnerable children provision has fallen disproportionately on support staff. Historically less organised, and often members of broader unions that don’t see education as a key organising area, some support staff are being rounded on by headteachers who are trying to bully them into work. This staffing group is lower paid and predominantly female, another example of the inequalities inherent in the UK’s response to Covid. The support staff issue needs to be challenged head on – support staff should get organised and teachers must make solidarity with them an unbreakable principle.

So what are the next steps in the campaign for safe schools and an education system that meets our needs?

Taking on the big arguments

The National Education Union has done a great job in uniting opposition to the Tory mishandling of the pandemic. But it can’t let being popular get in the way of doing what needs to be done to defend public health. The union has to be harder on the extension of the ‘key worker’ definition and give a lead to education workers that want to get away from business as usual in schools by making sure those that can work at home do so. This doesn’t mean turning away children or leaving vulnerable children isolated – but it does mean giving teachers and schools the confidence to keep attendance low and safe, protecting public health and forcing people to confront their bosses. The same is true in Special Educational Needs (SEN) schools, in alternative provision and in early years settings. Yes, education is vitally important, but the shut down will go on for much longer if Covid transmission in schools isn’t seriously curtailed.

Preparing for the ‘June moment’ in 2021

At some point, schools will reopen. The weaker lockdown we are currently experiencing will almost certainly not drive down the rate of infection enough to make school openings safe. With an even greater certainty, it is clear that the Tories will try and recklessly reopen schools before the virus is at acceptable levels. We have to prepare for that moment now.

Graphic reading: "NEU variant, transmissible to other unions, deadly to Tories"
Image: Artivists at Work

The activity around Section 44 and the subsequent week of partial openings has proven how uneven the level of organisation is across different schools. This has led to a certain amount of frustration over the last week as education workers at better-organised workplaces have been able to use risk assessments and collective strength to defend a strict shutdown, while other less confident and less organised workplaces have opened to a huge number of children. Any strategy going forward has to take this fact into account.

A national ballot

On Sunday, Rob Owen called for a national strike ballot. This has to be the way forward now if we are going to prepare for the inevitable battle around school reopenings. A disaggregated national ballot would allow us to be able to win action in confident and strong workplaces, pulling all schools along in our wake. This shouldn’t be left to local action that seeks better implementation of DfE guidance, it should be about carrying the fight to the Government around its woeful education policies. This week has shown that education workers are willing to take action where there is a bold and confident lead from the national union. This strategy also has the added bonus of setting up a battle with the main problem, the Tory Government. In June 2020, it was not my headteacher who made me unsafe, it was a reckless Tory-led Department for Education.

The national ballot must and should be around safety for education workers. It must also be about the safety of communities we serve – it is our communities that bear the brunt of Covid outbreaks spread through schools.

A different vision for education

A national ballot campaign must also be about much more, however. This is the second year that there haven’t been any exams in schools and, so far, the world hasn’t ended. Why should we not do away with an anachronistic institution that causes huge mental health problems for children and disproportionately fails working class children? Many SEN children who are in school are finding it easier at the moment, as staff-to-pupil ratio is much lower in the key worker bubbles – why should this not be the case all the time? Why should we accept a return to an overcrowded, under-resourced and alienating education system when we have models that can offer so much more? A strong campaign for a national ballot could and should raise all of these questions, exactly at the time when we have the momentum to carry them through.

Towards Zero Covid

The last part of the strategy needs to be based around a wider campaign for Zero Covid. It is not good enough to slightly depress the virus and then allow it to bounce back. That strategy has led to repeated ineffectual lockdowns and increases the chance of mutations, as we have learnt to our cost this winter. Instead, if we want to end the disruption to children’s education, and keep education workers safe, we have to be part of winning the Zero Covid argument in society at large. A strategy that seeks to eradicate the virus, then effectively contain any further outbreaks via mass testing and quarantining, is the only way we can get any return to normal, even with the recent advances of the vaccine. That is why I, and many education activists, will be attending the Zero Covid Conference on Saturday 16th January. It is also good to see NEU joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney among the speakers – but this needs to become a key plank of union strategy.


  1. From Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney (NEU Joint General Secretaries)

    We want to thank the thousands of workplace reps and National Education Union (NEU) groups across the country, who have acted so effectively to protect our members, students and the communities we serve.

    NEU members’ determination to refuse to enter workplaces, because of an imminent and serious danger to their health, meant that thousands of schools and colleges moved to remote learning on the first day of term. This was an important part of the Government’s subsequent decision to partly close them.

    The Government’s schools’ U-turn requires your union to develop its strategic response so that we can support you in the best way possible. Most schools and colleges are not fully open (although we know that some special schools, alternative provision and early years settings are still fully open).

    Feedback from members and reps tells us that the widening in the definition of ‘vulnerable’ and ‘key worker’ children by Government has led to an increase in the number of students in school and the size of classes. You have also told us that many members are being asked to travel into work unnecessarily to deliver remote learning.
    Because schools and colleges are now operating in such different circumstances we now believe that, for the majority of NEU members, section 44 may no longer be the best way to continue to ensure we keep members, students and communities safe.

    If members feel that the new arrangements in their workplaces are still unsafe, we are encouraging all NEU union groups to discuss the issues collectively, resolve with the head where possible but escalate where an agreeable resolution can’t be found.

    If members do feel the workplace is unsafe you should aim to work through the following steps within 48 hours and escalate to your branch if you need further support:

    -Speak with members at an online meeting and see if they share common concerns.
    -Arrange a meeting with your head and/or SLT to raise concerns.
    -Report back on the response from leadership and discuss next steps with members, including escalation and further support.
    -Escalate concerns with your branch and seek more support by contacting them here.

    By using these steps, we will be able to support members who do not feel safe and ensure that people can quickly escalate concerns – this might include the use of an indicative ballot.

    But, if members still consider that their workplaces are unsafe, then the union will support their use of section 44. If this is the case for your workplace, contact your regional office. They will advise you if this is the best way forward and, if so, tailor section 44 letters to your particular circumstances. It is very important that the general letters issued on 3 January are no longer used.
    We are strongest when we work together and act collectively.

    We will back every workplace group that feels the need to take action to protect the safety of our members, our students and most importantly our communities.

  2. I agree with most of this article, however I feel that that the author has been too “kind” on the leadership of the NEU. I know the leadership of the NEU from long experience. Two weeks ago or so there was an on-line meeting called by the leadership which orientated around the using of the section 44 H&S legislation to enable teachers who are/were scared to absent themselves from school. Many teachers then submitted their letters. What then happened was that the union was outflanked by the government which “allowed” schools in the tier four areas to close. Except of course they weren’t closed despite what the media says. And as you quite rightly point out there were far more “key worker” children allowed to attend than in the spring. It was a con and we fell for it. Not all heads/SLT are manipulative/narcissistic but a lot are. They are concerned primarily about their inflated salaries and toeing the line. The union having inspired members at the large zoom meeting with the notion that it might be moving to do something having spent much time doing nothing, then took two days or so to retreat, and say that members should only submit section 44 letters if it had first consulted with the union bureacrats. This is not protecting members nor is it a strategy for winning.


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