In late May and early June, without a ballot or picket lines, education workers inflicted a serious defeat on the government. A wave of discussion and collective organising by tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of teachers and school staff took place across England’s 17,000 primary schools and nurseries. It culminated in knocking back the Tories’ plans to reopen schools more widely on 1 June — and it saved lives. This is a powerful example of a central socialist argument that workers have collective strength and the power to affect the course of events in workplaces and society generally. It also rebuts the argument that “you can’t win big against the government”.
A massive campaign by the National Education Union (NEU) which included one mass online Zoom meeting of over 20,000 members, and support for mass refusal to return to unsafe schools if necessary under health and safety legislation, gave confidence to thousands’ of activists to organise. A survey by the NEU suggested that over 35 percent of primary schools opened on 1 June, while 44 percent did not open more widely at all. And the push to get pupils back into school met with mass distrust by parents. Mark Thomas talks to Leigh and Stuart, two union activists at the heart of the action in Oxfordshire, about what they think are the key lessons to be drawn from organising under lockdown.
SR: How have you built the meetings during lockdown?
Leigh: During lock down we’ve been bringing members together with big online meetings. We’ve had secondary, primary, special school and independent sector meetings. The average number of people turning up has gone from 30 to over 100. This system, of lots of smaller meeting has enabled far more people to contribute to discussion than a smaller number of mass meetings where people are often reticent to speak. So, this way we’ve really boosted the number of people attending and contributing to meetings.
Stuart: We’ve got 331 different workplaces in our branch. We’ve got about 26 percent rep density, across those state school branches. We’ve got 40 odd percent of our schools where there’s less than three or four members in them, because you’re talking about tiny village schools with only a handful of teachers. The number or reps has gone up over the period. We had a burst of new reps even before the lockdown, back in September, and we’ve had numbers of new reps every week.
Leigh: That’s one of the biggest battles. So many tiny village primaries who want to act alone. More or less 50 percent or our schools have less than five members in them because of the size of our schools. But over the lockdown there’s much more of a sense of people wanting to act together and wanting to take on roles. We’ve got big densities in bigger schools but often a reluctance in the bigger schools to be reps. During lockdown that’s changed and loads more people have been happy to take on responsibilities, and to come on union committees and so on. Lockdown has certainly made people feel part of something and want to know more.
Stuart: Comparing independent and state schools across Oxfordshire during lockdown, most independents have been doing on-line teaching from the start. They are confident their students all have the equipment needed, they’ve all got the broadband, laptops and so on. One of our independent reps told me his students have been Zooming away, making progress but we need to recognise that state schools can’t hope to do that. I’ve been teaching one kid, whose family has one computer in the household which mum needs for work and these sorts of issues are common. Lots of state school kids simply don’t have the equipment to maintain an engagement with the learning process. A lot of families have internet access based on their phone usage, or on limited contracts so its and big issue.
SR: What was your and your members’ response to the idea of opening in June?
Stuart: It was frenetic in the first few weeks of lockdown, as schools tried to scramble around to work out how to operate with key workers kids in and so on. We made sure all the info was available about health and safety, limitations on numbers of teachers in and all of that. So, there was a big fight in the first few weeks to make sure schools were following the NEU line.
When the reopening came that was when we held all our meetings again, making sure the checklist was being adhered to in as many schools as possible. We emailed all members, not just reps, to make sure schools were following process. We held reps’ meetings encouraging take up of the health and safety officer role, then held the area meetings giving an overview and making it clear what the NEU was expecting. Some heads wanted to get their whole staff team back on inset on the first day. We pushed back against that. We had a couple of meetings with the chains and that all got pushed back — there was no mass insets.
Leigh: We’re fortunate that the majority of our primary schools are still county council run. It’s a Tory council but they’ve been very keen to keep us on board. As soon as the 1 June announcement came they called us to a meeting and sent out risk assessment forms to all schools, regardless of whether they’re county run or not, to all academies as well. The only issues we’ve had is from some church schools. The biggest issue was the social distancing side of things. The schools in the city have very little outside space so when Johnson says use the outside space, we often don’t have any. Lots of schools are still run out of old Victorian buildings with very little space.
Stuart: The County councillors were unprepared to make any decision at all. Their whole attitude was ‘leave it to the heads’. We did manage to get the council to move on a few things. The council did put PPE into every state school in the county. Every single school got masks, gloves, sanitisers and so on. That was a direct result of our pressure and our stance on reopening. The threat of saying we might pull our teachers out forced the council’s hand. That the council sent all this PPE around meant individual schools could not ignore the importance of it.
SR: So, you’re confident that the organisation you put in and the engagement with other teachers around the county forced the council’s hand?
Leigh: Absolutely, the council weren’t prepared to do a blanket no schools are opening — they said its down to the discretion of the heads. We argued that puts lots of pressure on heads and since the primaries are all county council controlled it makes much more sense to have a central directive. In practice, what we found was that the heads followed our lead. We supported the heads through the clarity of our union stance — we gave them concrete evidence and guidance with regard to re-opening, and set very clear acceptable terms, so that they felt in a position to tell their governors and Trusts no, this is what we’re doing, we’ve got the Five Tests, here’s the evidence. It was a collective decision made by all members of staff, backed up by our organisation and clear, health and safety based stance.
Stuart: Some schools opened on June 1st but many more remained closed as they put more measures in place and checked their policies and procedures. It was a much slower opening across the county, directly based on the union’s stance. It had a knock-on effect. We met with other unions, parent groups and other Covid action groups all of whom chose when to send their kids back in. That was part of the union’s campaign, that parents understood that it wasn’t safe and they had to play a part. The slow — and relatively safe — drift back was definitely because of the clarity of the union message.
SR: What are the key things you’ve learned from this experience?
Leigh: Members realised it is their union. At the beginning, members were expecting us to come up with solutions. They were expecting us to talk to heads. As meetings progressed, as people took on board and understood what the union was trying to do, then members took on responsibilities of talking to and working with management, increasingly so as members became confident about the arguments and the union’s stance. We found that as members in schools grew in confidence, management also felt more concerned to discuss issues with members — the communication between the two improved the clearer the union’s message was.
Stuart: We’ve always tried to extend the participation, trying to draw in as many members as possible. There’s obviously limitations with Zoom and so on, but getting these big meetings — 180 in our first on-line general meeting, compared to usual meetings where we hope we’ll be quorate — having all those members turn up, wanting to be part of the collective experience of the union, to get these members into our primary schools, to people who have probably never engaged beyond paying their subs, that I’m really hoping will stick.
If we can, we could be based with a much bigger base of activists as we emerge from lockdown and the pandemic generally. Overall, we’re about 400 members up compared to the beginning of lockdown, as a result of the fact that we’ve stood up, organised and argued our case.
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