NEU Left bulletin 5th January 2022
Covid action needed
The shadow of Covid still hangs over us all as we go back to school.
Cases are at record levels. The nature of the new variant and vaccines are both helping limit the proportion of the infected who end up in hospital or die, but the absolute numbers are still high.
Things could get worse as schools reopen, and if they do we need to be ready to act as we have in the past to protect our students, their families and ourselves.
One thing is certain already- this government is simply not doing enough to keep schools safely open.
It would be safest to delay school opening, or stagger restarts, until all staff and students have two negative tests and enough air purifiers have actually been delivered to schools.
The NEU and other education unions have rightly called for much more action.
Some basic things should happen if there is to be any chance of keeping schools safely open- and if they don’t we need to fight to make them happen.
It would cost just £140 million to fit HEPA air purifiers in every classroom in the country- which would go a long way to helping keep schools safe. That’s just half the cost of the royal yacht.
That should be done as a matter of urgency. In Germany the government spent £452 million in the autumn on a similar programme for public buildings including schools.
Here, the government’s promised purifiers will not cover more than a tiny fraction of classrooms, and won’t be available until February at the earliest. Not good enough.
We should insist on carbon dioxide monitors in every classroom too – they don’t clean the air like purifiers, but they act as a warning if things are getting unsafe.
Schools don’t have enough funds after years of budget cuts for all this- but the government could and should find the money.
The SAGE scientific advisers recommend maximum carbon dioxide levels of 800 parts per million. We should insist that if any classroom goes above that it’s not safe to use and alternatives must be found.
If we are told to keep working in rooms above this level then this is a serious health and safety issue and we need to be ready to act.
In many schools simply saying open windows is not enough- many modern buildings have windows that can’t open- and if the weather gets colder it may be impractical if rooms are to be kept above the legal minimum temperature.
So we need to be ready to insist on changes to timetables and rooming as needed to ensure rooms used are safe.
Mask wearing in all communal areas, and in lessons too in secondary schools, should continue.
Schools should be proactive in pressing for maximum vaccinations and regular testing of both staff and students and for government to ensure enough tests are available.
Forms of bubbles, one way systems and the like will need to be under consideration too in many schools. There should be no question of in person staff meetings, parents evenings and the like at the moment- all should be moved to be done remotely.
A key issue may be staff absences if infection rates stay high.
All educators have worked above and beyond over the last 18 month to deliver the best education possible to our students in the most challenging of circumstances.
But we cannot and must not allow this to be taken advantage of to cover for staff absences caused by Covid. If schools try to take advantage of educators in this way we need to be ready to refuse and take action.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has talked of schools being “flexible” or staffing and classes “doubling up”.
We cannot accept teachers being asked routinely to supervise double-sized classes or cramming students together in large groups with no qualified teacher as a way of keeping schools open.
Instead we need government funds to ensure schools can get proper supply cover in as needed. And if that can’t be done we will have to demand schools move to at least partial remote learning.
Our national union should make clear that it will fully back any school group, including with industrial action ballots, if they want to fight over being told to work in rooms with unsafe carbon dioxide levels or being told to cover over-large classes or made to cover in PPA time and the like.
There should be no question of Ofsted inspections going ahead in the current Covid crisis either.
And exams set for May and June – from SATS to GCSEs and A Levels-simply cannot go ahead in the way the government has planned.
The differential impact of Covid, and illness, isolations and absences to both students and staff and the disrupted learning that this has and will cause, means it would be grossly unfair on many students to just go ahead with planned exams.
Some form of teacher assessments is again going to be needed- and it needs to be announced soon so plans can be made and not, yet again, wait until too late as has been the dismal pattern over the last 2 years.
In every district and school we should have meetings in the first week or two of the new term to discuss the pay survey anyway. But we should also meet to assess the Covid situation and to discuss and decide whether enough is being done and what we can do if it isn’t.
Make the pay survey count
The NEU national pay survey will start on 14th January. It has to be a top priority for every activist and every NEU Left supporter to build the biggest possible turn out.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has asked the School Teachers Review Board to look at making recommendations by May on pay awards for the next two years.
He says the “government remains committed to increasing starting salaries to £30,000 outside of the London pay areas” and that “this should be achieved alongside significant, but sustainable uplifts to the pay of more experienced teachers”.
But the Treasury has also written to the STRB demanding that any pay rises be “affordable” and within a “2 percent inflation target”.
The Treasury even had the cheek to tell the STRB that “if workers demand larger wage increase to maintain their purchasing power” they would be to blame for inflation rising further.
Our union has demanded 8% next year and 8% the year after- that would hit the £30,000 starting pledge.
And that should be for all teachers across the board- with similar pay rises for support staff and supply colleagues too.
Even that is barely a real pay rise. The latest Retail Price Index- the measure of inflation that includes housing unlike the government’s official CPI – is already at 7.1%.
Even the CPI measure is already at 5.1%. The Treasury says it thinks inflation will fall back to 2% quickly and therefore pay rises should be limited to around that.
But inflation has already done more damage to our living standards whatever happens this year. And there are already more food, petrol and energy price rises coming through and the 1.25% National Insurance rise- so inflation could get worse, not better, in the year ahead.
The 8% for all teachers for each of the next two years is the absolute minimum we need and deserve- and that should just be the start in reversing the 17% cut in real terms teacher pay has suffered since 2010.
And just as important as the pay award- it must be fully funded so all schools can pay it.
Without the funding we will see more jobs and vital educational provision cut on top of the damage already done by the 9% cut in per pupil funding since 2009.
So we need to build the turnout in the survey to help build the pressure on the STRB to meet our demands.
That means treating the survey in the same way we would a national strike ballot- urging reps to join district briefings, to call school meetings, to go round schools chasing people up, putting arguments, ensuring members vote.
The survey is just the start. We will need to follow it with a sustained campaign, through this term and to NEU Conference at Easter and beyond.
We will need a sober assessment of the strength and weaknesses shown by the survey and then a serious debate on the way forward.
We certainly need to prepare to be ready to take the next steps in the campaign if the STRB report in May does not give the pay rises and funding we need- and then aim to get in a position to take the national action we may need to win.
Every NEU district should be having pay briefings before the start of the survey. Those need to be the springboard for school meetings in as many schools as possible.
Make sure members use the My NEU link to update membership records, use the videos and other materials sent out by the national union. We need the biggest turnout possible- everywhere.
And in every area NEU Left supporters should meet together in the coming weeks and organise to ensure the battle plan for the survey and beyond is as effective as possible in their areas.
by Ian Duckett, Norfolk NEU
Much has been made of the “recovery curriculum”, and I’ve read a good deal about the “emergency curriculum”, but what I’m really interested in as a socialist educator is a curriculum that paves an alternative road out of this pandemic that our schools could take and build for a different and better future.
Social justice, with a focus on real-world research on topics like decolonisation and climate change, must be a keynote of the NEU Left’s strategy.
Curriculum development has, for me, always been concerned with three interwoven strands: the development of skills, knowledge and general education/enrichment with entitlement as its strong backbone.
During the pandemic events overtook learners and a blended learning model coupled with a more practical pedagogy linked to the emergency curriculum emerged.
New ways of engaging with the young people, sometimes planned; sometimes as a means of managing in a crisis; sometimes negotiated collaborative, but always as a direct and personalised response to individual learner needs became a reality.
While not always directly born out of the Covid19 crisis, some learning activities have been shaped and altered.
This new curriculum should be based on genuine action research.
If you are interested in engaging in and sharing left field and left wing research action research and shaping a bigger, more meaningful curriculum please contact Ian Duckett, Post-16 Officer, Norfolk NEU at [email protected]