Fight to put safety of students, school staff and families first

Despite what the particularly vicious sections of the press would have you believe, teachers want schools open as soon as possible – providing it is safe. As educators we are deeply worried about the impact of the lockdown on the mental health and learning of our students, especially the most disadvantaged. Unlike the Tories we have been concerned about these issues for more than just the past few weeks!

An National Education Union (NEU) member

The most important question to consider when re-opening schools is how and when we can do it safely. The government’s proposals to open on June 1st, which they are now retreating from under the pressure of the NEU, other trade unions and parents, are at best reckless and at worst a calculated attempt to put teachers and students at risk to protect the interests of big business. A detailed analysis of the proposals can be found here: If we re-open too early, as the government is suggesting, then it will lead to the virus spreading among young people and their families and risks a devastating second wave.

On Monday evening (May 18th) as many as 20,000 individual NEU members logged in to an online meeting to hear their Joint General Secretaries explain how members can resist a reckless return to unsafe schools. As JGS Kevin Courtney explained, any agreement on safety would first depend on:

1) The Government publishing its modelling justifying that their plans won’t be a risk to public health – and that advice standing up to wider scientific interrogation;

2) Testing, tracing and isolation systems being properly in place;

3) Infection rates to be at levels low enough to allow those systems to be able to operate successfully;

4) Local checklist compliance to confirm that social distancing, PPE, protection for vulnerable staff and their relatives, alongside other workplace requirements, were all satisfactorily risk assessed.

This huge turnout shows that teachers and education workers around the country have been turning to their unions for support after the government announced plans to reopen schools from June 1st. The NEU has seen a surge in both membership and engagement over the past two weeks. Nationally the union has gained thousands of new members and this has been reflected in reports from local schools in Leeds and Bradford.

New reps have been recruited and many schools have held online unions meetings with higher turnouts than usual. This can be seen most clearly in the recent online district meetings – 110 at Leeds (including a message of support from Richard Burgon MP) and 75 members in Bradford. The latter meeting voted overwhelmingly in favour the Socialist Party’s motion which called for the union to seek a national agreement based on the NEU’s 5 tests ( and to support members in refusing to return to unsafe workplaces (more on this here:

Bradford Council, with the backing of over 80 headteachers and academy chains, sent a letter to the Regional Schools Commissioner expressing grave concerns about the government’s plans to re-open schools and the potential safety risks it poses to the community.

They confirmed that the vast majority of parents share these concerns and that the government’s announcement has caused significant anxiety amongst school staff. Calderdale council have refused to open schools on June 1st amongst 18 councils either opposed to the government’s June 1st plan in full or in part (at the time of writing) including one Tory-led council. However, recent statements from Leeds and Bradford council have been disappointing. Both council have raised significant concerns including:

  • Lack of PPE provision
  • Tracking and tracing not yet in place
  • National and local levels of infection far too high
  • No protection in the government guidance for vulnerable staff
  • The impossibility of social distancing in schools

Despite raising these concerns the councils have not instructed schools to remain closed. Instead, they have said they will ‘leave it down to individual schools’ to decide. This is simply not good enough and is an abdication of responsibility. Individual schools cannot control infection levels nor access to testing – given neither of these things are yet at safe levels the council must instruct schools to close. Indeed, if left to individual schools, it will result in a school-by-school battle over the safe return and will lead to schools with no union rep or particularly a gung-ho headteacher opening earlier and in less safe circumstances.

This also raises the question of council control over education – academies are not bound to follow council instructions and seem to be siding more with the Tory government. The decision over re-opening schools should rest with local communities and their democratically elected representatives, not unaccountable academy boardrooms.

Despite this clear opposition there are still schools and academy chains in Leeds and Bradford pushing for a June 1st opening. It is essential that the NEU harnesses its members’ renewed enthusiasm and stands firm against an unsafe return. The NEU must immediately inform all members that they will support a collective refusal to return to work and empower local officers and reps to organise this.

Moreover, after this crisis the NEU must use its newly emboldened membership to fight for a fairer education system with higher pay, a reduced workload, and a focus on students well-being and enrichment as opposed to exams and league tables. We in the Socialist Party believe education should be free to all at any age and under the democratic control of teachers, students, parents and the local community. If you agree with us, and agree that this will only be possible following the socialist transformation of society, join us!

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