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Labour must resist the Tories’ reckless plan for schools

I TAUGHT in an Islington primary school for 23 years and was NUT rep there for most of those. 

My biggest struggle was persuading teachers who were clearly too ill to teach to go home and recover. 

It was a struggle because the only teachers I encountered were those whose care for children’s safety and wellbeing was absolutely paramount. I’m sure that hasn’t changed since I retired in 2015.

When I mobilised teachers to take occasional industrial action, they did so with a heavy heart, as children would be directly affected. 

But I convinced them that the children would benefit from being taught by motivated teachers who had self-respect from fighting for and winning better conditions, and from not giving in to government bullying or vilification by the right-wing media.

That bullying and vilification has increased as the NEU has shown resolve, tactical nous, and impressive unity in pushing its Five Tests campaign against the Tories’ reckless race to reopen schools to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 classes. 

The NEU has won support from the BMA and, according to surveys, from most parents too. 

On May 18, nearly 20,000 teachers logged into an NEU Zoom call to answer practical questions and plan how to advance the campaign.

Teachers already know that dozens of health workers and transport workers have died after contracting Covid-19 while working with inadequate PPE. 

They have no wish to enlarge that list of “martyrs” because of government failures, or because of ideological choices that prioritise “the economy” over safety, and profits over health. 

If teachers contract Covid-19 at school, they will take it home to their families. Many of the children they teach, especially those from poorer areas, live in overcrowded, multi-generational family accommodation. 

Teachers also know that young children cannot stick to safe social distancing and will be quickly bored in classrooms stripped of stimulating materials such as books, toys and games to share and learn with together. 

It is bad enough that the constant pressures of targets and Sats tests have narrowed the curriculum and the opportunities for more exploratory, creative and collaborative education, in favour of training and drilling pupils to “achieve” at tests. 

The regime that will be necessary to keep children, teachers and teaching assistants all safe will be even more unfree for everyone, of little educational value and will hinder rather than help their social development.  

In my teaching career I never thought we should look to the elite private sector in education for any models of good practice but several leading public schools are not intending on any return of pupils until September. 

Over the last 10 years the Tory government (with the coalition support from the Lib Dems from 2010-15) has enacted policies that have increased marketisation in education and increased inequality. 

Government ministers are crying crocodile tears over the impact of lockdown on the poorest pupils. 

Their real tears, though, are for the damage to their already failing economy if parents are having to prioritise childcare at home over returning to full-time work. 

If their concern really was for the poorest and most disadvantaged pupils they would be investing in providing laptops and internet connectivity for them, and ensure that they and their families don’t have to use foodbanks. 

I was not surprised to see the right-wing media helping the government to divert attention away from failings in its Covid-19 responses by promoting a “popular” battle with the teachers’ unions, but I worry that Labour’s response has not countered the government’s assumptions and priorities strongly enough. 

Nor has it shown the instinctive respect for union members’ concerns that characterised Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership during the last five years.

On April 13, the NEU launched its petition to the Prime Minister opposing any wider reopening of schools until it was safe to do so. 

The petition demanded details of the government’s scientific modelling for assessing risks, and its plans for extensive testing, contact tracing and quarantine.

One week later, with the infection rate still rising, Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change proposed that, as Britain moved forward, “schools could open first,” since “the economic and education costs of school closure are high.” 

Simultaneously, Keir Starmer made similar arguments, prioritising school reopening in his “exit strategy.” 

But the strategy we really needed was one to suppress rather than manage coronavirus. 

With official figures for lives lost to coronavirus in Britain standing at nearly 37,000 and unofficial estimates approximately double that, perhaps Starmer now regrets his emphasis on the economic recovery.

Rebecca Long Bailey and Angela Rayner have indicated support for the NEU’s Five Tests, as have several local authorities including Islington’s. 

As we approach the government’s arbitrary June 1 “deadline,” with all that word’s haunting inferences in this case, we urgently need Starmer to unite with Rayner, Long Bailey, parents and the NEU to block this reckless act. 

David Rosenberg is a member of Islington North CLP and is international solidarity officer of Islington NEU.

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