Just one day after declaring that he had no doubt in his mind that schools were safe, Boris Johnson closed schools and colleges as part of another national lockdown. Johnson and the Tories have shown that despite 75,000 deaths from Covid-19 they were prepared to see tens of thousands more lose their lives in the pursuit of herd immunity and profits for the bosses as workers were forced back into workplaces.
It is clear that the government was forced into this belated action by the NEU schoolteachers union, which organised to ensure that most primary schools would not reopen to all pupils whatever the government said. This represents another impressive victory by our sister education union over a government that has repeatedly dragged its feet over action necessary to combat the virus and has consistently put the profits of bosses ahead of our class’s safety.
This result was achieved by the NEU taking the bold strategic decision to organise collectively around health and safety. They wrote to all schools demanding they close or face the threat of members unilaterally deciding to work from home. They wrote to members calling on them to join the campaign and add their voices to the submission of Section 44 letters under the 1996 Employment Rights Act. Their success was not due to having friendly employers, as our General Secretary claimed this week. The corporations which run academy chains are no more sympathetic to trade unions than those running FE college groups. It was achieved by breaking through the worry and hesitation we all have as individuals and leading a collective stand.
At New City College, London, where management were trying to force staff to go in to teach this week, the branch organised a 200 strong union meeting and agreed to submit Section 44 letters. This courage paid off. Before Johnson eventually announced the third lockdown management met union officers and agreed not to force anyone back onto site.
The fact that nurseries remain open even under this lockdown proves the role of trade unions in forcing the government’s hand. Nurseries are vectors of transmission of the virus into the wider community, but because nursery workers are generally not unionised, Johnson can get away with keeping them open to allow parents to work. Only collective organisation and action by workers can ensure that the health and safety of ordinary people is taken seriously.
Although FE colleges have been closed as a result of Johnson’s U-turn, there is little change to the situation for universities where online teaching has already become the norm. The exemptions for particular subjects remain, and it is around how these classes are delivered that there will be battles.
Only absolutely essential and unavoidable face-to-face teaching should be taking place in universities and colleges, and where it is we must be insisting it is covered by updated risk assessments that address the fact that the new variant of the virus is 70% more transmissible. It is a legal requirement for employers to update risk assessments in light of changing risks, and no education worker should step into a classroom, shared offices, or student-facing services such as libraries, without appropriate measures relating to travel to and from the campus, ventilation, PPE, mask wearing in class, testing etc. being in place for the new variant.
There will also be battles over the nature of the work we do from home. The pandemic has exposed all the flaws of our education system from the disastrous marketised funding model in HE to the reliance on exams in FE. The crisis gives us an opportunity to fight for control over all aspects of education.
We need to be resisting management attempts to reach into our homes to control our working schedules, while demanding that we have the necessary equipment to do our jobs effectively and safely. There must be clear reductions in workloads and recognition of the inequalities of homeworking through the use of equality impact assessments.
We need to use the space opened up by the cancellation of exams and the opportunities provided by online forums to push for more creative, innovative and exciting ways to teach and learn. For too long we have had to put up with governments and managements telling us how to teach and what should and should not be on the curriculum. We have had to endure impositions and inspections based on arbitrary metrics. In reality, it has always been staff who have known what is best for the educational and intellectual development of our students.
We also need to organise with students to ensure that managements cannot pit students against staff. This means defending students’ demands for rent rebates, reductions in fees and for additional support to make on-line learning effective. We have to recognise that whilst in-person provision might be preferable the safety of all comes first.
We should build on the brilliant victory by NEU and begin to assert a different agenda for post-16 education, one based on meaningful learning and genuine intellectual inquiry, which properly addresses the issues raised by Black Lives Matter and other liberatory movements and treats students as equal partners in the educational process rather than ‘customers’ who can be milked for every possible penny in fees and rents.
Alongside defending jobs and fighting for decent pay, these are the issues that our union should now be taking up. The NEU has again provided a fantastic example to us of how to use technology to organise effectively and win. The holding of a mass members meeting of 400,000 and the recruitment of 14,000 new members in just 48 hours shows the potential that exists for trade unions that act in bold and decisive ways. UCU nationally has rightly campaigned for remote learning to be the default position for colleges and universities. What the mass member meetings will do to is to give confidence to members at branch level to campaign to implement this demand if management fail to agree.
This is why UCU must follow suit with mass reps/members meetings to create a movement that fights for control of education by its staff and insists that there is no going back to the pre-pandemic business-as-usual model.