Cllr Ryan Stephenson is Shadow Cabinet Member for Children & Families on Leeds City Council.
Leeds is one of those Labour Councils that tried its best throughout the Corbyn-era to stem the tide of Momentum infiltration. Cllr Judith Blake, the council leader, has survived by saying little and leaving the difficult bits for others to sort out. It therefore came as no surprise last week when, faced with a choice between trade union pressure to resist admitting more pupils into schools from 1st June and the pressing need to get children – particularly those disadvantaged, back into education, Leeds Council sat firmly on the fence.
The National Education Union had pulled out all the stops to get the Council to take a militant approach. One union officer told a meeting of Leeds Parents for Safe Return this week:
“We as a union have negotiated hard to persuade [the council] to take the same stance as councils such as Sheffield, Liverpool and the Wirral.”
Despite the union’s best endeavours, early reports suggest that school leaders and staff have worked hard to get pupils in key transition years back into school settings, with most schools and academies in the city defying union demands to boycott schools re-opening.
This demand has angered some in the teaching profession. Many view the unions as being guilty of talking about schools re-opening in a way that has peddled the misnomer that schools have been closed throughout the lockdown. The daily reality for teachers has been that they’ve done everything possible to keep schools open for vulnerable pupils and children of key workers. In most cases, teachers have been juggling arrangements for activities in school for those attending, whilst also conducting online lessons and setting work to support parents with home schooling.
Similarly, there is consternation that union rhetoric has focused around anti-government sentiment and less about children and their needs. For teaching staff, this has been a deep frustration. Indeed, the National Education Union’s own five tests for the Government before schools re-open only mention children once, in respect of Covid-19 testing. There is no mention of the impact reduced access to education is having on disadvantaged children, social, emotional and mental health, or the longer-term consequence on social mobility.
A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that children from better-off households are spending an additional 75 minutes a day on educational activities than their peers from the poorest households during the lockdown. Based on union demands for schools to stay closed until September, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates will double to three weeks.
That’s why anybody concerned about educational outcomes and social mobility, including three former Labour education secretaries, acknowledge that we must increase the number of pupils attending school as a priority. If we ignore this, we will see the tide turn on gains made in recent years.
When Labour’s David Blunkett accused the teaching unions of working against children’s interests by telling teachers not to engage with the Government over plans to increase pupil numbers in school, I’m sure he had calculated, as many teachers had done, that holding back until September would not only hit disadvantaged children the hardest but would put all pupils at an international disadvantage.
Considering scientific evidence that children pose less risk of passing on coronavirus, the European Union has reported that 22 member states had already reopened schools and no increase of the incidence of the virus had been reported among children, families or staff. In Denmark, schools returned on 15th April and officials reported the first day without a Covid-related death two weeks ago. Similarly, in Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Greece, schools have adopted a phased return of students throughout May. In Sweden, which has reported 160 fewer deaths per million of population than the UK and where lockdown restrictions were the most liberal in Europe, primary schools have remained open throughout the pandemic.
Looking to the future, the longer children in England remain outside educational settings, the wider the gap between the most affluent and the poorest pupils will grow. Likewise, we already have lower comparable educational attainment levels than many of those countries that have already re-opened schools and this gap will grow further if we continue to plough a different furrow.
The World Health Organisation’s coronavirus envoy, Dr David Nabarro, has said that, on balance, it is safe for children to start going back to school with a phased approach and strict safeguarding and hygiene rules.
In Leeds, local leaders in education are continuing to do their utmost to support an increase in the number of pupils in schools, perhaps not quite as the Government had intended from 1st June; nevertheless headteachers are doing what they feel is manageable. They know, as we do, that keeping children out of school much longer will setback social mobility for a generation.
In the months ahead, the teaching unions might come to realise that in failing to talk about the pressing needs of children during the pandemic, they’ve used up a significant amount of political capital and it’ll take some time to regain the trust of schools and academies.