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Consensus might be in vanishingly short supply regarding the right response to the Coronavirus pandemic. But giving priority to getting the schools fully reopened next month does have general approval. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, is a lockdown hawk – arguing we have “probably reached near the limit or the limits” of opening up society. But rather than suggesting that the schools should remain largely empty he suggests it is a matter of trade-offs. Professor Graham Medley, another Government advisor, is thinking along the same lines. Medley says:

“It might come down to a question of which do you trade-off against each other, and then that’s a matter of prioritising. Do we think pubs are more important than schools?”

Daniel Hannan feels “it is a question, not just of proportionality – children do not, in normal circumstances, experience or pass on Covid symptoms – but of equity.” He writes:

“Nothing has shocked me so much over the past four months as the gap between ambitious and unambitious schools. Good state schools, and most private schools, ran something close to a full timetable, with morning assemblies, online classes, music lessons, even sports days (mediated through apps that record speed and distance). Bad ones sent out desultory worksheets and, in some cases, wouldn’t mark them.

“A survey by the Children’s Commissioner found that half of teenagers, and nearly 60 per cent of under-12s, got no online teaching at all last term. The go-to excuse of failing schools – lack of resources – doesn’t work here. The playing fields of Eton may be expansive and expensive but, during the lockdown, they were used only by the children of key workers whom the school had taken in. Teaching online is cheap: it is a question of commitment, not money. Yes, a few kids might lack access to screens; but that is an argument for offering extra support, not for refusing online lessons to everyone else.”

The message from the Government on school reopenings has been robust. While other measures to restore normal life have been subject to caveats, the schools one has been unequivocal. The implication is that even if we have discouraging statistics – or predictions such as the Lancet study suggesting a “second wave” – then the response will be to look for alternatives to keeping the nation’s children stuck at home.

The hitch is that the teaching unions are just are emphatic about wanting schools to be closed. The National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (the NASUWT) is anxious not to be regarded as any less militant that the National Education Union (the NEU). Like all militants, they are well versed in making impossible demands, whilst going through the pretence of following reasonable procedure. Thus, whatever precautions are put in place and however much the threat of Coronavirus recedes, they will come up with a declaration that returning to work would put the safety of their members at risk. The risk assessment will be challenged as deficient – regardless of how meticulous it might be.  The timing of these objections will be as late as possible to make it harder for them to be resolved. In the awkward event that a demand they thought was impossible is met, they will quickly think of a new one.

One great prize for the unions would be to keep the schools closed for long enough to prevent SATS – the Statutory Assessment Tests – and the Progress 8 tests taking place. These are important accountability measures for primary and secondary schools – which show if the children are actually learning anything.

What will help the unions is that the practicality of having a school functioning is the necessity of having a large majority of teachers back at work. The classes need to be covered through the school day. If only half the teachers are prepared to turn up, then it probably won’t be viable for the school to open. The situation might be eased by some parents refusing to send their children back to school. But this could hardly be counted on. There is also the restriction on moving pupils from one “bubble” to another. In any case, if many parents are uneasy about schools functioning again, this can only be helpful to the unions and detrimental to the Government so far as winning over public opinion is concerned.

Suppose if the Government decided to take inspiration from how Ronald Reagan responded to a strike from air traffic controllers in 1981? He told the strikers that if they did not return to work within 48 hours, they would lose their jobs and might not be re-hired. There was some temporary disruption but the resulting control system emerged safer and more efficient.

In the context, a bold response would be justified. Other workers (including just about all others in the public sector) who are required by their employer to return to their workplace must do so – unless they can establish to the satisfaction of some official entity, such as the Health and Safety Executive, that entering such premises would be a genuine hazard. By not coming in to work, without a legally valid reason for remaining absent, they would have foreited their job.

For teachers, though, the idea of being sacked seems pretty farfetched. Furthermore, they are not directly employed by central Government – but by academy trusts or local authorities. However, it would be possible for the Government to say to the school authorities that they are being funded to provide education. If they are unwilling or unable to find enough teachers willing to carry this out, then their funding will cease. The problem with this nuclear option is that to carry out the threat could involve closing schools – with the disruption lasting much longer.

So one can see how the teaching unions might feel they are in a pretty strong position. But they do risk overplaying their hands. Most teachers did enter the profession with the motivation of teaching. They do actually develop a concern for their pupils to learn. It would be interesting to see some polling or focus groups from teachers but I suspect that if unions are too brazen in their intransigence they will alienate their members. Time will also increase the number of parents who wish schools to be up and running. Primary pupils in England in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 went back at the start of June – and each week the number of pupils being sent in rose significantly. Strike action would hardly be noticed if a school is empty anyway.

Even if the unions “win” – which I suppose would mean many schools staying closed for weeks with the teachers on full pay and facing no sanction but perhaps shuffling back into the classrooms at some stage in the New Year – that might be dangerous for them. What if some parents mount a strike of their own? They might withdraw their child from school completely and opt for home schooling through to A-Levels. This would cut the finance to schools – who are paid on a per pupil basis. Clusters of parents might hire private tutors to teach ten or 12 children at a time. What if such informal arrangements start next month, intending to be temporary, and then turn out to work rather better than regular schooling? The added attraction for those annoyed by schools pushing left-wing indoctrination would be obvious.

True, most parents would probably not resort to such drastic action. But they might still feel considerable dismay. A YouGov poll yesterday showed a big majority favouring full reopening after the summer holidays, “as things currently stand”. Imagine the exasperation if there is long delay with apparent justification? The Government would be likely to respond with legal changes that diminish the power of the teaching unions – with heads given greater authority to hire and fire and negotiate pay and conditions on an individual basis.

The teaching unions may win the battle this autumn. But then lose the war – once long overdue action is taken to break their stranglehold.

98 comments for: A battle with teaching unions looks inevitable next month. Who will win?

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