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Danger as Tories plan to end school Covid-19 safety rules

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Failed education secretary Gavin Williamson wants to end the system of pupil ‘bubbles’ even as coronavirus cases soar. Sophie Squire talked to school workers who now fear the worst
Issue 2761
Boris Johnson visiting schools—the places where cases are spiking
Boris Johnson visiting schools—the places where cases are spiking (Pic: Flickr/ Number 10)

Covid cases are rising in schools. Last week more than 375,000 pupils in England, about one in 20, were forced to self-isolate because of possible exposure to the virus. That’s up by 130,000 in a week.

Despite the danger posed to both students and staff the Tories are determined to push ahead with easing restrictions.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has signalled a shift to more Covid testing in schools from September, rather than having to send home whole “bubbles” of pupils when someone tests positive.

In fact he overstates what happens. Already in some schools only children who sit near to a positive case are sent home, not entire classes.

Williamson says he wants the bubble system removed “as quickly as possible along with wider restrictions in society”.

The move is causing alarm among teachers.

“There are more stringent measures that could be brought in right now, and it is a mystery as to why Gavin Williamson continues to do nothing,” said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU union.

Chris is a teacher and union activist in the West Midlands. He told Socialist Worker, “The government is trying to say we can return to normal in schools.

“But how is that possible when cases continue to climb and the Delta variant means the virus is much more transmissible?

“Schools are driving the spike in cases, but there are plans to scrap all precautions. It makes no sense.”

Tory school recovery plans won’t benefit children
Tory school recovery plans won’t benefit children
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In Southampton cases have risen fast. Last week the local council reported 51 cases of the virus in education settings. There had been only one the previous week.

Teacher Jodie says that while her school has made every effort to keep staff and students safe, new cases have been recorded.

She told Socialist Worker, “The Tories seem to think there is a magical force field around schools, that it just doesn’t affect us. But I don’t know one school locally that hasn’t been affected.”

Both Jodie and Chris say that behind the Tories’ push to end restrictions is a drive to save money.

“If the government had listened to teachers and the union, made it easier for us to socially distance and funnelled money into an education recovery plan, all of this could have been avoided,” said Chris.

“The Education Policy Institute said that £15 billion was needed for education recovery after Covid. The government gave us just over £1 billion.”

And Jodie added that if the plans to lift restrictions go ahead, ­teachers must mount a fightback like they did in January of this year.

“We embarrassed the government in January.

“The Tories have tried to present teachers as incompetent and deliberately slowing down the process of returning to normal. But we’ve been proven right time and again that safety precautions must be put in place or cases will rise.

“If Williamson wants to get rid of all safety measures in September, I think education workers should spend the summer planning what action we should take in response.”

‘Perfect storm’ is chance for national action in post-16 education

Workers in post-16 education are discussing how they can unite a number of different fights and push for united, nationwide action.

Activists in the UCU union gathered last week for an online rally. They discussed how to bring together campaigns against casualisation and to defend arts courses—and how to build a fight for better pay, conditions and pensions.

People at the rally were clear that education bosses have used the pandemic as a way to attack workers’ pay and conditions.

Meanwhile, universities in particular have been raking in cash.

They received a staggering £21.5 billion in student fees last year—over a third more than in the 2014-15 academic year.

But that money is not going to workers. Instead universities are pushing forward with redundancies and increased casualisation.

UCU members at Liverpool and Leicester universities have been on strike against compulsory redundancies. The union at both universities is organising a marking boycott. Anthony O’Hanlon, branch president of Liverpool UCU, told the online rally that staff cuts are being made on the basis of “bullshit performance metrics that no one can meet”.

“But fighting back has been key,” he said. “The employers know how important this dispute has been and how much support has been shown.”

Anthony ended with a call for coordinated action saying, “Next time Liverpool takes action we have to take everyone with us.”

Lecturer Andreas Anastasiou from Leicester university added that coordinated action on the scale of the strikes in 2018 was needed.

Leicester university workers launch three-day strike over job cuts
Leicester university workers launch three-day strike over job cuts
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He also said that there were issues with the strategy of relying on a marking boycott.

He said bosses at Leicester were finding volunteers and using postgraduate students to mark work that would normally have been assessed by staff who are boycotting.

It is not only in universities that workers are preparing to take action. Twenty colleges are now being balloted for strikes over pay and conditions.

Chair of London region UCU, Margot Hill, told the meeting that a “perfect storm was brewing” in further education.

“There is real unrest over pay in the colleges. Thirty percent of our pay has gone in ten years and tens of thousands of jobs have been lost.”

She outlined what the UCU should do next.

“We can build locally of course but also we must build nationally. There is potential to have a one‑day strike in post-16 education.

“There’s a chance to build a fightback in the autumn.”

There are those at the top of UCU that think that there is no mood to fight, and that action should only be taken locally.

But coordinated strikes across both further and higher education could fend off attacks from the education bosses and the Tories too.

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