Thanks to the efforts of education unions, the Tories have retreated on plans to reopen schools. This victory shows what can be achieved through organisation, but is only the first step. We must put workers in charge.
Despite opposition from teachers and parents, as well as repeated warnings from scientists and teachers unions over safety, the Tory government has pushed ahead with the reopening of schools.
On 1 June, small groups of primary school pupils in years 1, 2 and 6 returned to schools, unable to play with shared toys or have any contact with their teacher.
Tory Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said that “the coronavirus could be with us for a year or more”. He therefore insisted that children could not stay out of school for “months and months” longer.
But Williamson’s insistence that children return to school is not based on any concern for the education and wellbeing of pupils. Disadvantaged pupils, for example, have still not received the laptops promised by the government two months ago, which are necessary for them to access online learning.
Rather, the pressure from the Tories reflects a desire for parents to return to work, in order to get the economy moving again.
This was clear in the government’s plans to have all primary-aged children back in school for the last month of the summer term. This is despite the fact that track-and-trace is still not fully in place, and is not expected to be fully operational until mid-September. Furthermore, recent modelling suggests that fully re-opening schools could trigger a second wave.
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) June 4, 2020
However, under pressure from unions in the education sector – including the NEU, GMB, Unison and Unite – the government has u-turned on this decision. Yesterday, Williamson announced that primary school students would not all need to return until September.
This chaotic climbdown (from a decision that they never should have made) demonstrates the total disarray that the government is in. The Tories have no plan, and are just making things up as they go along.
The Tories have consistently eschewed working with education unions – with workers who know what is and is not possible in schools; with those who are interested in the health of the population, rather than the government’s concern only for the health of business.
This is a victory for the NEU and the other education unions. It shows what the organised working class can achieve. But it is only the first step. As with every decision made about the lifting of lockdown, if we want to prioritise lives over profits, the working class must be in control of decision making.
Organisation and action
We have seen many parents and some councils take action into their own hands. A National Education Union poll of members suggested that 44% of schools did not reopen more widely from 1 June. In addition, over 20 councils in England defied government policy, instead issuing their own advice against wider reopening.
In schools that did open, large numbers of students stayed away. Official figures released this week from the Department of Education show that only a quarter of those pupils who could have returned to school did so. This shows that many parents chose to keep their children home – again, ignoring the government’s assertion that a return to schools is safe.
Workers and parents have also organised together through the trade union movement to put pressure on councils to change tack more locally. In Sheffield, for example, the local council reversed their decision to support the reopening of schools at only one day’s notice, on the 29 May.
We need to build on this collective action. There has been talk of individuals and small groups of teachers using Section 44 of the Employment Act to refuse to go into work on the grounds of safety. But this is individualised action, and would not prevent the wider reopening of schools on a larger scale. Nor would it strengthen the organisation of workers.
What is needed is collective action – organised through the unions and community ‘covid-councils’ of workers and parents – to stop all workplaces from reopening more widely before it is safe. Instead of putting lives at risk, we need to be putting organised workers in control of workplaces.
Streatham Young Labour shows support for striking teachers
Dora Dimitrova, Streatham CLP
Comrades in Streatham Young Labour recently issued an open letter to Lambeth Council. In the letter, we expressed our unconditional solidarity with the NEU, as well as our absolute lack of faith in this Tory government’s ability to ensure a safe school environment for students to return to.
The right-wing press has shamelessly attacked teachers in the NEU for taking a bold stance against reopening schools until it is safe to do so. It is clear that what matters to the Tories and their capitalist backers is not children’s education and wellbeing. Rather, their priority is getting working parents back to their jobs in order to make profits for the bosses.
The leader of Lambeth Council had said that the Council backed the NEU’s five tests for reopening schools safely. They also stated that they were working with teachers locally to ensure the discussion was about “how” children go back to school, not “when”.
While this sounds correct on paper, the Council ultimately also stated that their goal is “to return all children [to school] as soon and as safely as possible”. This is simply not good enough.
As the Streatham Young Labour statement highlights, Labour councils shouldn’t just be aiming to make the disastrous Tory policies slightly less bad. They – together with the NEU and other unions – should be using their political authority to lead the fight against the government.
Our statement was welcomed by local NEU and Unison branches. There is clearly an appetite for more radical action.
Streatham Young Labour is planning a public online meeting in the coming weeks, where we will be discussing – with local NEU activists, parents and schoolchildren – the way forward in fighting this reactionary government. Follow our Facebook page for more details.