The teachers were right all along

The teachers were right all along
Comment: The government's refusal to listen to the National Education Union's advice on how to protect schools and students is nothing but a criminal display of incompetence, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
08 Jan, 2021
A child watches an online lesson during nationwide school closures in Newcastle-under-Lyme, England [Getty]
The worrying news that a "more transmissible" variant of coronavirus was discovered in the UK in late December sent panic across the country, and even around the world.

At least 40 countries put restrictions on travellers to and from the UK, as areas including London were put under Tier 4 restrictions. After Christmas day, this was extended to millions more, and today the country is under a nationwide lockdown. 

What is so aggravating about all of this, is that it could have been avoided. And it feels like the situation has reached an even more frightening stage than before, despite the positive news about vaccine distribution.

Last month, health secretary Matt Hancock announced that 11-18 year olds were "by far" the group with the fastest rise in Covid-19 infections. Adding, that "We need to do everything to stop the spread in school-age children now".

It is striking that his announcement came after months of the government ignoring the plan put forward by the National Education Union (NEU) during the summer to ensure schools could reopen without becoming hotbeds of infection. The union requested adequate 
PPE and more testing to prevent the continued spread of the virus, clear isolation protocols for schools where there is a case of infection, protection for the most vulnerable who are disproportionately impacted or surrounded by those who are, and adequate social distancing measures.

What is so aggravating about all of this, is that it could have been avoided

Instead, not only were teachers' worries not addressed, necessary measures not taken earlier, but even as late as a week prior to the end of the term Hancock reaffirmed that schools would not close.

At the same time, the spike in cases led secondary schools in London boroughs of Greenwich and Islington to close their doors until the end of term, with other headteachers across London and the UK requesting to do the same. Even the Mayor of London put out a similar call to the government demanding the early closure of schools and colleges ahead of the holidays.

However, the Tories' response was to threaten those institutions that dared to protect their staff and students with legal action
This, the government claims, was all to ensure that education and public health were prioritised.

You have to wonder if the Tories seriously think anyone believes their claims about their moral obligation towards two areas that they have waged war on since they gained power.

Cuts, divestments, academisation, privatisation of higher education have all been their contribution to education since 2010's coalition. And pretty much the same levels of financial strangulation have plagued the national health service, with the most recent election taking place against a backdrop of Johnson's plans to sell off what is left of it to US buyers. These are the same people telling us they care about students, teachers, patients and medical staff.

And while the government has now been forced to close schools across the UK, we should be under no illusions about the reasons behind the government's obsession with avoiding - even forbidding - school closures.

It is not the educational development of our children, or the enrichment of society, or even to desire to address mental health issues that drives their sudden concern. No, it is all about profit. The Tories wanted to ensure that parents continue to work even if that endangers them, and avoid forking out the necessary financial support for parents who need to stay home and look after their children, or for ihome learning materials.

Furthermore, as Joint General Secretary of the NEU Kevin Courtney explained to me, "you have to prioritise public health in order to look after education." The Department for Education (DFE) has been set on driving up school attendance, but this is only going to happen "by getting virus levels down", Courtney highlighted. "DFE's actions can be counter-productive, banning schools from running on a rota basis has actually increased the number of infections and increased the amount of absence from school," he added.

It also serves to reinforce who it is we should be listening to: those on the frontline

With the present national lockdown already on the horizon, the government defiantly maintained its approach on school closures, with little indication the necessary protective measures would be introduced. 

The NEU once again wrote to the prime minister and the Secretary of State for Education, calling on them to do the bare minimum for ensuring a safe return to schools for staff and students: Online learning for the first two weeks of the spring academic term, as well as giving schools time to introduce adjustments including testing.

In addition, Directors of Public Health would be expected to set up testing systems that would allow all children to be tested before returning to classrooms. And finally, they requested the two-week period be used to start the distribution of vaccines to education staff alongside NHS and care workers.

As Kevin Courtney pointed out, "our three demands are the least they can do to try and achieve some sensible pattern of school opening." The issue is, Johnson has demonstrated very well that he will not be sensible when it comes to the lives, safety and future of the great majority in the country.

Read more: Tory opposition to foreign aid budget cuts reveals an exercise in self-interest

Instead, he opened schools for one day - long enough for thousands of children and school staff to get infected before being forced to backtrack and announce a national shut down.

Just days earlier, Johnson openly went against the NEU, worried parents, and even the recommendations of The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) by announcing that "schools are safe" to return to. Within 24 hours, he was forced to make a humiliating u-turn and call the closure of primary and secondary school as yet another national lockdown was put in place.

Only his incompetence can rival his criminal lack of care.

Only Johnson's incompetence can rival his criminal lack of care

This entire affair showed again that the prime minister was willing to gamble with the lives of hundreds of thousands across the country in order to avoid delivering any victories to the union, or getting in the way of company profits.

It also serves to reinforce who it is we should be listening to: those on the frontlines, those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and those experts whose concerns don't lie with the economic and political elite.

The only reliable opposition in the UK is the national leadership of the NEU. At every turn since the outbreak of Covid-19 the NEU has demonstrated a greater care for our communities and a better ability to respond to the pandemic in the interest of the great majority, than the government or the supposed opposition led by Keir Starmer.

Their projections and plans should be taken much more seriously by Johnson and his ilk. The government should be held accountable and made to pay for what they have done. Starting by extending our solidarity to the thousands of teachers, trade unionists and students who are fighting to protect us all, and joining their fight, is the best way to do just that. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.