Last Sunday, Boris Johnson insisted on multiple occasions that the majority of primary schools in England would fully open the following day, on Monday 4 January. He repeatedly assured that they would be safe for students and staff.
These assertions from the Prime Minister came despite a planned week-long delay in exam-sitting pupils (those in Years 11 and 13) returning to secondary schools, along with a fortnight-long delayed return for non-exam-sitting pupils.
By the next evening, however, the same Boris Johnson was holding an emergency news conference to announce that all schools in England would be closed until mid-February at the earliest. Furthermore, this latest measure would be part of a full national lockdown, in which all but essential services and businesses would have to close.
Johnson stated that such a sharp U-turn was a consequence of dramatic changes in the objective situation – specifically, an alarming rise in the number of COVID cases, along with a new consensus amongst scientific experts.
Furthermore, the PM claimed that these changes were a consequence of a new strain of the virus emerging and spreading, which apparently could not be foreseen.
Like most of the words emanating from Johnson’s mouth, however, this is all lies, fabrications, and distortions. Yes, the scientific evidence demanded a need for a strict lockdown. But such advice had come from SAGE [the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] back on 22 December. So why the last minute change of heart on Boris’ part?
In truth, the Tory government was forced to change course due to a backlash from the organised labour movement – a movement that, unlike Johnson and his ministers, has always been guided by scientific advice and the interests of workers, students, and the wider public.
On Saturday 2 January, the leadership of the National Education Union (NEU) took the decision to advise members who work in primary schools to issue a Section 44 notice to headteachers, and offer online teaching instead.
Section 44 is a notice that all workers have the legal right to issue to an employer, if they have evidence to suggest that their workplace is unsafe.
In this case, the necessary evidence was provided by SAGE and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. According to analysis presented by SAGE, the new strain of the virus was up to 70% more infectious; and schools are an important vector of transmission for this more contagious variant.
The scientific advisory group therefore recommended that schools should remain closed until mid-January at the earliest, so that the R-rate could drop below 1.0 – the level at which case numbers would start to fall.
A petition in support of this action was launched by the NEU and Unison that same evening – on 2 January. By the next morning, over 170,000 people had signed it; 24 hours later, 250,000 had.
On Sunday – shortly after the Prime Minister had defended his position regarding the reopening of primary schools – a rally was held by the NEU leadership, in order to clarify the union’s stance and generate further support for this.
There was a limit of 40,000 places available in the online meeting – a limit that was quickly reached. In addition, many watched on other social media platforms.
Subsequently, figures show that 100,000 people listened to the entire meeting, with 400,000 attending in total. This event was therefore the largest online meeting in British history!
The NEU leaders presented their arguments clearly, supporting them with facts and figures from the scientific community. At the same time, the confused and contradictory arguments of the Tories were comprehensively demolished.
Those who attended evidently took these arguments back to their respective workplaces and colleagues. This was shown on Monday, when significant numbers of primary schools across the country were forced to remain closed due to Section 44 notices being issued. In Norfolk, East Sussex, and Durham – where the NEU is particularly strong – the vast majority of schools had to stay shut.
Furthermore, motions in support of teachers were moved by Labour activists in CLPs around the country. In Parliament, a significant number of MPs – primarily from the Labour Party – were also prepared to offer their support. Even some local councils, such as Brighton and Hove, came out and told primary school teachers and headteachers to defy the government.
The movement was clearly growing, going from strength to strength. All the indications were that the teachers were not going to be defeated. As a result, Johnson’s latest U-turn came later that same day.
Profits vs lives
As we have argued before, schools should not have been fully open for some time. This is precisely because younger people are generally asymptomatic. Pupils therefore unknowingly spread the virus to their peers, teachers, and parents, and onwards to the wider community.
This has been the NEU’s position. The union has argued for a blended curriculum of both on-site and online learning, on a rota basis. This would have reduced the number of pupils in schools at any one time, thus significantly reducing the transmission of the virus.
The Tory government, however, has refused to engage with the NEU. Instead, they have consistently pushed to keep schools fully open – even after evidence emerged that a new, highly-infectious strain of the virus was spreading, initially in the South East of England.
At root, the Tories’ position on schools is a reflection of their priorities throughout this crisis: not for the health of the public, but for the health of big business and the bosses’ profits.
The Tories and bosses want schools to stay fully open so that parents can continue to work. Some estimates suggest that around two million parents and carers are affected by school closures in terms of their ability to work. This means a lot of missed working-hours, and thus a lot of lost profits for the capitalists.
Ironically, we must add, the incompetence of Johnson and his chums has only exacerbated the public health crisis, leading to higher COVID levels and a subsequent need for longer, stricter lockdowns. In other words, by recklessly pursuing short-term profits, the Tories have actually increased the severity of the economic impact, deepening the crisis overall.
Put workers in control
These recent events directly pose the question: Who should run our schools? Should it be the Tory government, who are intent on sacrificing lives for the sake of the bosses’ profits? Or should it be the teachers and workers who are on the frontline – those who know best about conditions in their workplaces and local communities?
In this battle, it is the workers who have come out on top, ensuring the safety of students, staff, and the general public. But unless action is taken to transform education, this same struggle is going to break out again and again.
To start, the labour movement needs to fight for the recommendations that the NEU have made to make schools safe. The current lockdown period must be used to carry through these changes, including:
- Keeping remote education in place until schools and universities are genuinely safe to reopen, as decided by teachers and their unions.
- Providing laptops and decent internet connections to ensure that all students have access to online education.
- Mass testing of students and staff.
- Requisitioning empty buildings in order to create extra space for reduced class sizes and proper social distancing.
- Providing emergency funds to hire more teachers and support staff.
Solidarity and support
Unfortunately, Keir Starmer and the Labour leadership have failed to back the teachers so far, refusing to support the closure of schools until after the fact. Similarly with the leaders of right-wing unions such as GMB, who represent support staff in schools.
Instead of tail-ending the Tories, Labour should be giving their full support to teachers and teaching unions in their struggle against Boris Johnson and his rotten government.
Rank-and-file activists in the Labour Party and other unions should pressure their leaders to come out in defence of teachers, passing motions of solidarity – including calls for the above demands – in branches and CLPs across the country.
Struggle for safety
Had the government listened to teachers and the unions over the last year, working to make schools genuinely safe, then this unfortunate step of now having to close schools might not have been necessary.
Instead, the Tories have consistently demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice the safety of teachers and students – and the health of wider society – on the altar of profits.
This recent win by the NEU is a significant victory for the entire labour movement, which shows the way forward for the working class as a whole – through mass struggle and militant action.
If workers are to successfully resist the attacks of the Tories and bosses in the period ahead, they should take a leaf out of the teachers’ book.