UK: Education unions say governmental failure is responsible for new national lockdown in England

published 5 January 2021 updated 8 January 2021

On 4 January, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown in England. This lockdown imposes new national restrictions which include the closure of schools and colleges except for the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils, as well as an immediate move to remote education.

Education unions in the UK had called for schools not to reopen on 4 January and gave their reactions to the Prime Minister’s announcement – after some pupils had been in school for one day.

NEU: Government must take responsibility for neglecting schools and colleges, and for their closure

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) and member of Education International’s Executive Board, stated that “this is a crisis point for the nation, and a great deal of what got us here should not simply be blamed on new strains of the virus”.

She reiterated that the government has had eight months to prepare for a renewed period of remote learning, and for alternatives to exam assessment at GCSE and A Level. However, the government has not used that time wisely or well, she insisted. Public authorities ignored “the mounting evidence of COVID-19 transmission in schools to education professionals and into pupils’ households”.

Pupils must be a priority

She also said that SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] had told ministers on 22 December that even a lockdown of the same severity as last spring would not be enough to reduce the reproduction (R) rate below 1. For Bousted, “it is incomprehensible that, with this information, the Prime Minister even yesterday continued to declare that schools were safe. These are not the words of a leader who is ‘following the science’.”

Insisting that Government must make pupils a priority, she added that much more had to be done for vulnerable pupils. “This time, the Government cannot falter in ensuring those young people are safe, have enough food and are supported in maintaining their mental health,” she explained.

Duty of care

Bousted condemned the fact her union received no reply when writing to the Prime Minister with its education recovery plan containing recommendations on important steps to promote children and young people’s health, wellbeing, and education. She again commended the plan to Prime Minister Johnson. She reaffirmed that the NEU wants “to work with the Government to achieve much better outcomes for our nation’s children and young people in this period of lockdown”.

She went on to say that “Government must take responsibility for neglecting schools and colleges”, and “needs now to exercise its duty of care, which has been sorely lacking, to those who have worked so tirelessly and heroically, to take care of the nation’s youth.”

She concluded: “No one wanted schools and colleges to be shut again but the evidence clearly pointed to the necessity for this to happen weeks ago. Why Boris Johnson allowed such confusion and chaos to build up around school openings before making this belated, blindingly obvious decision is beyond belief. Government must take responsibility for this closure because it has allowed COVID-19 to become, again, out of control.”

NASUWT: A national lockdown, the only credible response to the high transmissibility of the new variant

For NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union General Secretary Patrick Roach, “we have seen a bad situation getting worse by the day. The position now is as bad, if not worse, than it was in March/April”.

Highlighting that “a national lockdown is the only credible response to the high transmissibility of the new variant”, he acknowledged that “it’s right that the Prime Minister has accepted our call to move immediately to remote learning for pupils nationwide”.

While he regretted having seen too much disruption to children’s education, he said that “without tougher measures, that disruption was only set to continue. Limiting the spread of the virus is the only way to ensure schools can remain open safely after February half-term.”

Protection for teachers and pupils

Roach also recognised teachers who “have done everything that has been asked of them. But teachers and pupils deserve the same levels of protection in the face of this highly deadly and highly contagious virus.”

Getting schools open again in February without further disruption means learning lessons, he added, underlining that the Government must engage in working with the sector to develop credible solutions that will provide a sustainable basis for safe teaching and learning.

“It is extremely disappointing that the Government has not yet signalled rolling out the vaccine to prioritise schools and education staff,” he went on to note. “Keeping teachers free from COVID is the best way to ensure that children’s education does not continue to be disrupted going forwards.”

Education recovery

Roach was adamant that the Government must use the period of this lockdown to develop a plan for education recovery that is supported by a robust system of testing led by public health teams, stronger mitigations to prevent the spread of the virus, and priority access to vaccines for the education workforce.

“Given the scale of the difficulties faced, the Government is right to look at alternative plans for exams this summer,” he said. “It is essential that the Government works with the profession on these plans and does not repeat the mistakes of last summer. The Government must also confirm that it is cancelling statutory tests for primary school pupils,” he added.

Union solidarity and joint approach

Both Education International affiliates had signed a collective statement demanding a safe reopening of schools in 2021 on the same day the lockdown was announced.

The other signatories included GMB - a trade union that represents workers across public services as well as in in private companies, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) – a professional association and trade union serving school leaders in all sectors of education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, UNISON - one of the UK's largest trade unions representing staff who provide public services in the public and private sector, and Unite – representing workers in Britain and Ireland with members working across all sectors of the economy.

Unions had also called for a pause in the reopening of schools for anyone other than vulnerable children and children of key workers, and a move to remote learning for all while COVID-secure working arrangements were reviewed. “All school staff continuing to work in schools should be given priority access to COVID-19 vaccinations,” they insisted.

They noted that the UK government’s chaotic handling of the opening of schools had caused confusion for teachers, education support personnel, and parents.

“Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic,” the statement notes.

“Instead of casually asserting that schools are safe, the Prime Minister should sit down with unions to discuss a joint approach to ensuring safe working arrangements in all schools and prioritising enabling all pupils to have the equipment and access they need to receive a high standard of remote learning until the safety of them and the staff in their school can be guaranteed,” the statement outlines.

According to the unions, a plan to ensure schools are safe for staff and pupils must include:

  • Reviewing risk assessments and COVID-secure plans in schools.
  • Prioritising school staff welcoming vulnerable children and children of key workers in schools, in the vaccination strategy.
  • Providing digital equipment and support for pupils who need it to ensure they can access high quality remote education.

The blog “Taking Action to Keep School Pupils, Staff and Communities Safe in England”, by Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, is available here.