By Karam Bales
Before the start of term, I asked, where is the science? I think now we need to ask, where is the common sense? For a government that likes to rely on people using their common sense, it shows a remarkable lack of possessing any of their own.
As we are told on a daily basis, these are unprecedented times and the government’s decision to recklessly plough ahead with getting all students back into education buildings required unprecedented measures.
The first weekend of 2021 began with one of the most significant days of trade union organisation in decades. Representing school leaders, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) brought a legal challenge to the Queen’s Counsel demanding to see the evidence that the government was basing its decisions on. A National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) Freedom of Information request revealed local infection data showing that teachers are three to four times more likely to have been infected than the general public. And the National Education Union (NEU) and Unison issued advice to its members on the appropriate use of Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
The government was insisting that schools with classes of thirty, no social distancing, no masks and often poor ventilation were in the narrowest definition “safe”, that is, the death rate in children is very low but not zero. This downplays the risk to workers, families and the wider community while also ignoring the harm of Long Covid.
On the Monday, over 6,000 primary schools received Section 44 letters from workers, invoking their individual right to not enter an unsafe workplace, with thousands more letters being prepared. I believe this played a significant role in the Prime Minister announcing that we would be entering lockdown, and unlike November, this time education would be included, opening only to keyworker and vulnerable students. The activist groups I work with felt a deep sense of relief. Was the government finally taking decisive action to get infection rates down as rapidly as possible? Unfortunately there was a sting in the tail, with the government seemingly intent on undermining its own policy.
The definition of keyworkers and the rules about when their children would be allocated a place in-school were changed, massively widening the number of students eligible for places. The definition of a vulnerable student was also changed to include students who don’t have a device for remote learning. This means that, because of the government’s abject failure after eight months to provide devices and internet access, over a million additional students are expected in schools compared to the first lockdown.
The consequence of this incompetence and negligence is criminal. The statistics show disadvantaged groups are disproportionately impacted by the physical harm of Covid, and due to the inability to provide devices, the government is now expecting these households to continue mixing in schools. This increases the risk of transmission in these communities compared to well-resourced, wealthier areas, where most children will be able to work from home. Covid has brutally exposed the inequality in our country, yet the government’s decisions are making the situation even worse.
School leaders are being put in an impossible position as the government spews out a stream of guidance mutating with updates at a rate more rapid than any pathogen.
With considerably higher student numbers in schools, this doesn’t feel like a lockdown. Primary schools in particular, with 40-70% of pupils in school, still have crowded classrooms where social distancing is impossible, compared to having around 10% of pupils in during the first lockdown. The guidance even told schools that there was no limit to the number of students who could be in school. Transmission will continue in schools and spread into the community, as you read this. Schools will be sending out isolation notifications to parents due to new positive cases.
SAGE have been telling the Prime Minister they have serious concerns we may not be able to flatten the curve and get RO below one. Hence there was a change of messaging within a week of the lockdown announcement. The strengthening of the stay-at-home messaging and several tweaks to the guidance for schools, that keyworker children should only come into school as a last resort, should make a difference. However, we really need those devices that still haven’t arrived, despite the promise that we would get them last week.
The £100m contract for providing these devices was awarded to Computacentre, a business unsurprisingly owned by a Conservative Party donor. Also unsurprisingly, the consequence of failure is that Computacentre have just been awarded another £100m in government contracts.
The situation in early years education is even more alarming. They have been told that they must remain fully open. With the daily death toll over a thousand, those working in early years are stressed out and scared. They feel as though the government has deemed them to be expendable for the sake of keeping the parents in work, because despite alarming infection and death rates, it still seems that the government is trying to find a false middle ground between health and wealth.
Only 16% of workers are furloughed during this lockdown, so it could be argued that the government has chosen to put early years staff and their communities at risk, due to its unwillingness to fund another round of furlough payments. Special and Alternative provision are also expected to remain fully open showing a lack of understanding that just because a student has an Educational Healthcare Plan doesn’t necessarily mean they are vulnerable.
So this is where we find ourselves a week into term. The Department for Education (DfE) has yet to update Health and Safety advice to take account of the new strain. We are still being told that masks shouldn’t be worn in classrooms, and there are too many students and, by consequence, staff in schools.
Work continues by the unions to make working conditions safer. This week a threat of industrial action in some London boroughs has already managed to drive down student numbers to allow for better social distancing.
The question is, what comes next? When, and more importantly, how, will education settings increase student numbers again? With Johnson still claiming “schools are safe, it’s the mixing of households that’s the problem”, I worry the government’s current plan is not to reduce infections down to minimal levels, but to follow an adapted version of the Great Barrington Declaration’s proposed strategy of protecting the vulnerable, while everyone else returns to normality after 10-15 million of the most at risk have been vaccinated.
If after half-term or even Easter, schools return to the same conditions we faced in December then we will return to the same infection growth rates we saw in December. Hospitals will continue to be overwhelmed, preventable deaths will occur, untold thousands will face the uncertainty of suffering from Long Covid and education will continue to be disrupted due to outbreaks and isolation. Most concerning of all, allowing the virus to continue circulating and multiplying in high numbers, increases the risk of further mutation, which could make our current vaccines useless.
We have many months, perhaps the whole year, before we can firmly put Covid behind us. We need a real plan, a proper strategy and collaboration between the DfE and trade unions to create a sustainable system of education which supports students, minimises disruption and protects us and our communities. Unfortunately, there seems to be little sign of this currently emanating from central government, and the same question still persists, what science is the government following?
Karam Bales is a member of the National Education Union Executive, writing in a personal capacity.
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