Teachers’ Unions Won Big This Week. They’re Just Getting Started

This was already beginning to happen last term. Marner Primary was one of a number of schools that closed early for Christmas, though many were forced to reopen – often for just one or two days – after threats from ministers . Come January, this trickle of rebellion had swelled to a tide. In Norfolk on Monday, 100 primary schools that were meant to open stayed closed. Rather incredibly, the Conservative-controlled Essex county council advised primary schools in three districts to disobey central government and stay closed. By Monday evening, the PM’s was less a statement of intention than of fact: lockdown or not, many schools were not going to open. As the summer wore on, and parents wore out, the government – and their most loyal opposition – hardened their line on schools reopening in the autumn. Cases were relatively low then – around 1,000 a day, down from around 5,000 in the spring – and spirits relatively high. So teachers returned, and term began. With bubbles running into the hundreds and social distancing virtually non-existent, the situation in schools rapidly deteriorated. Yet when the unions made demands for government to improve it – with a half-term circuit breaker , a rota system and reduced class sizes – they were roundly ignored. Vik Chechi-Ribeiro, a secondary school teacher who sits on the NEU’s national executive, speculates that this may have been because once again, industrial action was emanating from above – “a strongly-worded letter to the prime minister” – rather than below. “The challenge for us as a union,” he says, “was that as we started to return, we didn’t have that organised grassroots presence we needed to win more significant demands.” The challenge now, he continues, is to build on that action. “For a lot of new members, their first action will have been quite militant: putting in a Section 44 letter. How are we going to keep that momentum going?” Part of the answer is straightforward: ensuring new members become embedded and active within wider union structures as quickly as possible. Part of it is more delicate: ensuring members “link this crisis in health and safety to the wider struggle” – in other words, that they become politicised. In all the movement of the past ten months, Schneider senses a rebalancing of power between teachers, management and government. “When I started teaching back in 1990, it was much more collaborative. Teachers were considered professionals. We had a huge amount of say over our curriculum and how we taught it. Gradually, governments – including Labour – chipped away at that autonomy.” The pandemic, she says, has begun to restore it. “People have realised, ‘hang on a minute, these are schools for the community, they’re not at the beck and call of government.’”

2021-01-06 | Articles, Report, coronavirus | English |