Make Our Schools Safe!
This is an eye-opening interview to a Fellow Worker, from the front lines of UK’s educational system during COVID-19 pandemic.
Would you like to introduce yourself?
I’m originally from Northern Ireland, but I’m currently a secondary teacher in Brentford, London. I’m a member of the National Education Union (NEU) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
What’s your role in the NEU and in the IWW?
I’m a workplace rep for the NEU and IWW – what’s known in the IWW as a ‘dual carder’ – doing case work and organising in my school and broader education settings.
The NEU has advised their members in primary schools, as a result of the escalating COVID crisis, only make themselves available for remote and online working. How did it get to this point? Do you think the guidance goes far enough?
The guidance, applicable to secondary schools as well, has come about due to the government’s inability to see schools as hot spots for Covid transmission. As well as threatening legal action against councils like Greenwich for a proposed move to online learning for the last week of term, several FOI requests into the data concerning transmission in schools and teacher deaths have been refused. Add to that new SAGE [the Scientific Advice Group for Emergencies, the body that advises government policy in relation to COVID] recommendations warning that returning to November restrictions – or even more frighteningly the March lockdown – will not reduce the R rate* below 1, the NEU has decided that returning to school would be a reckless dereliction of their duty to defend their members.
I think this guidance is the NEU five tests for slow learners; although we did not know the virus would mutate the way it did, the fact that it would mutate was foreseeable.
‘Calling a school or any other workplace ‘Covid secure’, when you are inside in close proximity to others with poor ventilation for hours at a time is for the well-ventilated birds.’
I understand that, internally, the NEU is basing this advice on “Section 44”. Could you tell us a little about S44? And how the NEU has discussed this and promoted it internally?
Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, 1996 states that in circumstances of a serious and imminent danger an employee can withdraw themselves to a place of safety. The NEU did discuss this before September as a possible defence, but only now have they discussed it as a potential tactic BEFORE an updated risk assessment for all members to use in unison.
What’s been the response of the wider membership?
For most a general sense of relief, for a small minority an annoyance I’m sure.
What’s been the role of the national union in all this?
The national union has only now decided on this stance because they were frightened of how a strike would look in the midst of the crisis. So far, they have managed expectations and dampened enthusiasm so that we could return to work and they would not be blamed for kids losing school hours. Members have fluctuated between the fear of contracting the virus and/or passing it onto others, and joy at seeing their students and returning to the classroom: the sublime and the beautiful indeed. Reps, predictably, have been the most active and radical element in the union.
In general, how do you think the crisis has affected how state sector teachers see their jobs and relate to their employers? What do you think the long-term effects will be on those who work in state schools?
There has been a re-kindling of union activity in schools, not always to do with health and safety issues, but acting as a catalyst for the more general awareness that staff have the power to exercise control over their working conditions if they work together. Long-term, the union (and worker power) has the chance to become more entrenched in how school decisions are made, although that could threaten to be a new form of corporatism better suited to post-war Keynesian economics. After austerity, academisation** and 40 years of neoliberalism,***the teachers’ unions are much tamer, more timid beasts. Far better to take advantage of government stumbles and punch up, rather than send another strongly worded letter to our opponents.
‘Being a dual carder has given me insight into when school managers’ interests can align with ours and when they diverge from the interests of their staff.’
How has your involvement in both the NEU and the IWW affected how you’ve related to the crisis? Your local school management? Your fellow teachers and support staff?
Being a dual carder has given me insight into when school managers’ interests can align with ours and when they diverge from the interests of their staff. Unlike the IWW, the NEU includes management members: varying from the decent and committed to the self-interested and overbearing (the latter taking the opportunity for scurrilous behaviour from the conflict of interest posed by their membership of two distinct, and often antagonistic, groups). The IWW has no such issue, nor need for negotiation between what are effectively class interests within the union – providing a level of clarity or ‘class consciousness’ proving very helpful when making strategic and tactical decisions.
Organising methods in the NEU vary, usually due to the influence of the branch secretary: if they are effective, you will be supported when issues crop up. I’ve been lucky in my local secretaries, but not everyone can say the same. Like all workers, teachers and support staff respond favourably to assertive action; although potentially more ‘confrontational’, the IWWs methods of direct action – used wisely – are conducive to the improvement of working conditions more than any petition or management meeting.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Solidarity to all the Fellow Workers! ✊
* The R rate measures the spread of COVID across a population. An R rate above 1 means that each person who contracts COVID will spread it to more than one other person and, as a result, the spread of the disease is on the increase.
** Academisation refers to the policy by which state comprehensive schools were taken out of local authority control and transformed into academies. This was widely opposed by teachers and their unions who saw it as leading to an increase inequality within the provision of education, removing schools from local democratic control and stymieing national bargaining over terms and conditions in schools.
*** Neoliberalism refers to the turn to free market economic policies overseen by Margeret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. Neoliberalism resulted in the deregulation of private industry, the privatisation of public services, a reduction in state social welfare programs, a loss of power for unions, and a concentration of power and wealth at the top of society.