Education workers teach Tories and Starmer the bleeding obvious
Last week the National Education Union (NEU) represented about 450 000 teaching assistants, learning mentors, premises staff, office workers and teachers in schools and colleges in England and Wales writes Andy Stowe. Over the last few days, it has gained an estimated 16 000 new members. On Sunday its joint general secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney led an online briefing and discussion for members which had 400 000 participants.
More than any other union or political party in England, the NEU has been setting out the right ideas on how the pandemic can be managed so that its impact on children and families can be minimised. This was starkly demonstrated on Monday January 5th when both the Tory government and Labour leader Keir Starmer were grudgingly obliged to support the course of action that the union had been calling for from early December, a total closure of schools in England for all children other than those of key workers and the most vulnerable.
Parents and children had gone to bed on Sunday night having been told on national TV that morning by Johnson that most of them should go to school if these weren’t in an apparently random selection of local authorities. Starmer, whose default position on everything from Brexit to displaying the union jack to pandemic control is to support the Tories was saying pretty much the same thing.
At the Sunday meeting the union leaders had advised members in primary schools to use their legal right not to go into work if they felt that the premises were unsafe. In December, the union had been calling for schools to be closed at the start of the new term in January as a means of lowering infections. The reason for doing so was obvious. The new virus variant was far more contagious and even if it was unusual for children to become very unwell, they would spread the disease to family members, staff and family members of adults working in schools. Virtually every education worker now knows someone who has died or become gravely ill due to contracting the virus in a school.
Unlike the Tory commentators who have suddenly become gravely worried about children’s mental health and lack of access to broadband and a decent laptop at home, the NEU and its members have long been raising concerns about these issues. Even before the pandemic it was taking months for children to get access to a preliminary mental health assessment and this was a direct consequence of Tory funding choices. The 2019 Labour manifesto was ridiculed by these same people for offering universal internet access and a few months later we all learned how indispensable this was.
Through mobilising its members online, having a clear set of demands which were manifestly in the interests of children and public health and a highly effective media strategy, the NEU has won a major victory for its members and wider society. It has shown Labour what real leadership looks like.
Unfortunately the Welsh Labour government, which has generally had better positions on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic than Starmer, was arguing for a phased return to school from 6th January. First Minister Mark Drakeford made the bizarre claim that Covid-19 was not spread in classrooms but during other (unspecified) activities in schools – the sort of nonsense to be expected from Boris Johnson but not the usually sensible / Drakeford. Predictably the Welsh government had to back down and schools will now be closed until at least 18th January.
Rob James, the virulently unionist Labour candidate for the Senedd seat currently held by Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price asked on Facebook for people’s views on school closures. The majority were in favour, probably about 4 to 1 – even more so if you discard the Covid deniers, those who think teachers are all parasites and the usual anti-Labour trolls. Several people challenged the argument that ‘our’ children are suffering particularly badly pointing out that children’s education has been affected in virtually every country not just in the UK.
Oddly in Wales the opposition to the planned opening of schools was led by the NASUWT and the NAHT Cymru with the NEU Cymru adding its voice somewhat belatedly. But it seems fairly certain that the entry of the NEU Cymru into the campaign forced the retreat by the Labour government.
The question of school students in the Covid crisis.
Well done the NEU, since the summer exposing the Government’s proposals for education during Covid as being a series of political kneejerks endangering staff and the community rather than anything remotely resembling a properly thought-out policy for students.
The current disaster has happened with sickening predictability. As spring 2020 dragged into summer, there were very few people who DIDN’T want the lockdown to end, not because they didn’t want to fight Covid, but because lockdown was so draining and stressful, financially, domestically and psychologically. Some people just broke the rules, and that appalled everybody as being anti-social. But ‘School Opening’ became a popular slogan to symbolise the end of the lockdown, something to be surely aimed for by everybody, Tory and Labour alike. School-Opening in September was a target win-win for all: getting teachers and parents back to work, relieving strain on employment and the home, and children educated properly again. And when the medical experts confirmed the kids would be safe if they returned to school, it turned into a massive policy bandwagon.
This explains the rise in Covid deaths from September, only temporarily interrupted during the semi-lockdown in November, and then accelerated with the fury of a firestorm until reaching the present catastrophic 4-figure daily death-rate. The Government wants us to believe it was the result of the new strain of the virus. Not so: it was entirely predictable way before that emerged: but only if you were asking the right questions, as the NEU have been.
“will the staff and other adults be totally safe if schools are reopened in September?” In the summer, staff and the union waited in vain for an answer as the Government and its medical appointees deliberately misconstrued, deflected or totally avoided this question, in order to get a consensus on the need to reopen. Labour’s new Leadership, supported by an unholy alliance of Blairites and disparate anti-Corbynites, lamentably jumped onto the policy bandwagon, criticising the NEU for…well…for raising a voice of criticism, dissent and increasing alarm on behalf of its members. Shame on you Starmer.
Last Tuesday, 5 months and tens of thousands of Covid deaths later, in a complete volte-face, Boris Johnson motivated his new call for shutting schools by admitting that children, many of whom were not showing symptoms, WERE infecting adults. All those acolytes, Starmer included, stand stripped naked of any defence…they are complicit…
Also questions like:
“how can we carry out mass education remotely in a way that works while the schools are shut?” (continually avoided by the Government, so developed constructively by the NEU).
If the Government is hoping a strict lockdown will tame the Covid beast, then we might also add questions like:
”if an inordinate number of children have the virus and can pass it on, won’t this eventually show in the number of family adults being infected, now that everyone is confined at home together?”
…and if the Government is relying on the vaccine programme to resolve the crisis, questions like:
“if unknown numbers of children are regarded as a transmitters of the virus, and yet are not scheduled to be vaccinated in the near future, won’t this spread the virus into the community again once this lockdown is ended, whether or not the children go back to school?”
I’d rather trust the NEU to answer these questions than Johnson or Starmer.
Like the Tories displaying the union jack,Starmer doesn’t have a Signer. Shame.