Last night, the National Executive of the NEU adopted a strategy for a safe return to schools and colleges, in response to the government’s attempts to force a ‘big bang’ on 8th March. I am pleased to have had a hand in drafting that strategy and speaking to it at the meeting.

The full text of the strategy adopted is reprinted below.

However, it is not decisions of the National Executive that will determine the impact of this opening, it is what happens on the ground. It has never been more important to build our union in the workplace. This must be our absolute priority.

What is clear is that the next stage of our battle to keep schools, colleges and communities safe will involve two key elements – stepping up the campaign for wider opening to be staggered in line with scientific recommendations, and ensuring that appropriate risk assessments are in place at workplace level, based on the latest checklists from headquarters.

On the first of these, we have already won some successes, with the government now accepting that wider opening in education is the first part of a phased opening up and that we cannot move on to the second phase until the first phase has been successfully completed.

We have also seen an acceptance from Gavin Williamson that secondary schools can phase opening over two weeks, in order to implement testing regimes. We make sure that this phasing is used, particularly in areas with higher covid rates.

We must also continue the political pressure to allow schools, colleges, employers and local authorities to use their professional judgement in implementing wider opening, without government interference.

We cannot have a repeat of what happened in Greenwich. Over 50,000 people have died of Covid in the UK since Gavin Williamson took Greenwich Council to court for wanting to move online at the end of December.

We have an all-member meeting on Monday 1st March at 5pm and should be convening workplace meetings to discuss how we can win appropriate measures, including phasing or staggering of opening.

These workplace meetings will also be crucial in checking implementation of the NEU checklist for opening and revised risk assessments that are compliant with this checklist.

On 6th March, we are convening a national Reps for Change event, as part of the Together for Change campaign, to give reps and workplace activists an opportunity to share experiences and support each other through this crucial period.

We have over 100 registered for the event already and I would encourage you to book your place now.

It is vital that we share, and learn from, experiences of successful workplace organising as we move forward.

Once again, it will be up to us to keep our workplaces and communities safe.

Sign up to join our movement for change.

Text of the strategy adopted by the NEU National Executive:

1.         The NEU’s position has always been that we want schools to be open safely and sustainably. Schools are the best places for children and young people.

2.         The Government has consistently mishandled the pandemic, going into lockdown too late in March, coming out before cases were low enough, failing to make an effective test track and trace system for example

3.         They have specifically mishandled schools during the pandemic; failing to engage with our education recovery plan, refusing to support rotas, not including schools in a circuit break over half term, threatening Greenwich council in the run up to Christmas and then planning to open all primary schools from 4 Jan despite SAGE advice.

4.         Throughout the pandemic the National Education Union’s overall strategy has been aimed at keeping the community and our members safer and building the strength of the union while doing so. We have done this by engaging with and following the science, engaging local politicians public-health, mobilising members and Reps and the public.

5.         Our tactics have always been in line with the overall strategy but have changed as the science and the circumstances changed. We have always sought ambitious tactics that could be delivered. There is an act of judgement in this and that judgement is really important.  (See draft summary of the tactics we have used at end of document)

6.         In the last weeks we have engaged with other unions and organisations in discussion with the DfE about potential models of school opening when the time was right and additional mitigations that may be put in place – including phasing, testing, masks, ventilation and vaccination.

7.         Last week in response to leaks about a big bang opening we issued a joint statement with another 8 unions and other organisations calling for phasing.

8.         However the Prime Minister has announced that all schools in England are to open fully on March 8 with some additional mitigations in secondary schools – lateral flow tests before re-entry and mask wearing in class.  Other stages in release of the lockdown are too follow at later times – so hospitality etc. not yet open.

9.         We continue to believe that this is reckless – a phased approach would both have allowed for cases to fall further, for vaccinations to spread further and for examination of the consequences of wider opening on some year groups to be assessed. SAGE papers released yesterday support this position, though some notable SAGE members like Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson are supporting the Prime Minister decision on the roadmap.

10. On Monday evening we conducted a survey of our members – 44,000 responded in under12 hours. The responses confirmed that members support the union position – though with some variation by phase and with more support in the secondary phase and more balance in primary phase.  The paper also shows some more concern for personal safety amongst older members. A paper with more details of the survey is being prepared.

11. Agreed actions:

a. Continuing public agitation for phasing and for additional mitigations – including reference to SAGE papers that support phasing.

b. Renewed publicity for the school Covid map which shows local case rates around schools – together with monitoring of case rates over time and renewed statements for phasing, circuit breaks and mitigations if cases rise.

c. Agitation for acceleration in the vaccination schedule for front line key workers

d. Strong promotion of the Education Recovery Plan, ‘Help a Child to Learn’ and Vaccine demand – including via online parents’ meetings

e. Encouragement to members and reps, and support for branch officers to:

i.           Engage with school leaders to discuss ways to stagger the return of year groups in the run up to Easter both to ensure cases fall further and to allow time for testing to be run.

ii.         Use the National Reps Meeting and All Members National Meeting to build support for the Joint Union Statement, and press the case that a full reopening in line with the Government’s plan is reckless and unsafe.

iii.       Support workplace groups, employer groups and LA branches in using collective action to seek a staggered reopening, based on local case rates and the scientific advice;

iv.       Develop clear guidance for workplace reps and local officers on putting this strategy into action locally;

v.          Produce materials for our reps to use, including a model letter for reps to send to heads asking them to work with us to establish an agreed staggered re-opening, and a revised risk assessment informed by a concise Checklist for wider re-opening;

vi.        Encourage all workplace union groups to meet and to use the above documents to seek a safe and staged return to school;

vii.       Call public facing online events that publicise the union’s stance on a safe return and the recovery plan;

viii. Encourage Districts to hold members meetings in advance of 8th March to win support for the union’s position, and to lobby Local Authorities, MATs and colleges to stagger their returns;

ix.        to use new checklist materials with red-lines drawn from Government guidelines – testing, masks, ventilation, no in-person staff meetings and maximum protection of the most vulnerable in the run up to their vaccination – including with the threat of industrial action and the potential for the use of S44 under advice from the union.

x.         to engage with local public health officials and local authorities to examine local trends in the data – and looking for example at rotas if cases in schools locally are increasing.

f.          The Executive should conduct a full review of these positions in the weeks immediately after Easter.