A leading teaching union in the United Kingdom has advised primary school staff not to return to classrooms on Monday (January 4) due to unsafe conditions. The National Education Union (NEU) said teachers have a legal right to defy Government orders that most primaries should reopen when the new term begins. It comes after an embarrassing Government U-turn which means all primary schools in London will remain shut as the capital battles rising infections.
Initially only some boroughs in London were included on the list, as well as some schools in Essex, Kent, East Sussex and Milton Keynes. The U-turn promoted two other leading unions to begin legal action to close all schools. Most other primary schools in England are expected to still open on Monday while secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis, with exam year pupils returning on January 11 and others returning a week later.
The National Education Union (NEU), which represents the majority of teachers, wants all English primary schools to move online and advised its members it is not safe to return to classrooms on Monday. In a statement, the union said: ‘This is a step we take with huge reluctance. But this Government is failing to protect children, their families and our communities.
‘And it is failing in its duty of care to education staff who have worked tirelessly to look after children during this pandemic.’ The union said that while children may not become ill with Covid-19, they can still spread it to others. The statement continued: ‘If Government does not act to follow the science, we must.’ Minutes from a meeting between the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and ministers on December 22 revealed members had warned that schools needed to be closed to bring down transmission. Sage said even a full lockdown similar to the one in spring would be unlikely to get the reproductive number – or R value – below 1.
The NEU’s joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said its members have ‘a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions’. ‘Whilst we are calling on the Government to take the right steps, as a responsible union we cannot simply agree that the Government’s wrong steps should be implemented,’ she said. ‘That is why we are doing our job as a union by informing our members that they have a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions which are a danger to their health and to the health of their school communities and more generally.
‘We are informing our members of their legal right to protection to be guided by the science.’ Dr Bousted said this means teachers can be available to work from home and work with vulnerable children and those of key workers, but not to take full, in-person classes from Monday. She continued: ‘We realise that this late notice is a huge inconvenience for parents and for head teachers. ‘The fault, however, is of the Government’s own making and is a result of their inability to understand data, their indecisiveness, and their reckless approach to their central duty – to safeguard public health.’
A Department for Education spokesperson today insisted it would only switch to remote learning as a last resort. But one local authority has already said it will defy the Government. Brighton and Hove City Council has advised primary schools to delay reopening and teach remotely until January 18 due to increased rates of Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) union, along with the Association of School and College Leaders, has said it is taking preliminary steps in legal proceedings. The legal action covers a range of issues including ‘the scientific advice the government is drawing on’ as well as proposals for testing in schools.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said the union has asked the Government to ‘share the evidence’ behind compulsory mass testing to get secondary schools open, regional differences, and ‘the distinctions drawn between primary and secondary schools’. ‘In large parts of the country, control of infection has been lost and the lack of understanding regarding the new strain has now created intolerable risk to many school communities,’ he said.
The union said it is now waiting for the Government’s response. Ministers are facing increasing pressure to keep schools closed amid record high daily infections, with other unions joining the calls. The general secretary of the NASUWT union, Dr Patrick Roach, called for an immediate nationwide move to remote education due to safety concerns. He said: ‘The NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk as a result of the failure of employers or the Government to ensure safe working conditions in schools and colleges.’
Unison head of education Jon Richards also called for the delayed opening of schools. Mr Richards said: ‘Ministers have had weeks to get this right instead of leaving parents, staff and whole communities confused. ‘The union is clear that members who work in schools have a right to a safe working environment. They shouldn’t have to work where they face serious and imminent danger.’
On Saturday evening, a Department for Education spokesperson said schools ‘will continue to implement appropriate safety measures to help mitigate the risk of transmission’. The spokesperson added: ‘As we’ve said, we will move to remote education as a last resort, with involvement of public health officials, in areas where infection and pressures on the NHS are highest.’