We must listen to the teachers’ unions

We should all be watching carefully the dispute that is bubbling at the moment between the teaching unions and the government. It could very easily set a precedent for how the rest of us are treated when it comes to workplace protections against COVID-19.

When Boris Johnson addressed the nation last Sunday, informing us of the new rules in a way that he alone could have imagined was significantly clearer than the hue of mud, the onus was delicately and deliberately placed on employees rather than employers:

Work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t.


Think how different this is to what he ought to have said: “If your employees can’t work from home, employers must adapt their working environments to the new Covid-secure standards.”

Yet instead of this, we were given the woolly assurance that, “we have been working to establish new guidance for employers”.

And here is where we come to teachers. The academisation of the education sector means that schools are now run for profit. A Local Education Authority can set minimum standards across their region and co-ordinate efforts to ensure that schools are safe. An academy chain, motivated by little other than exam results and quantifiable progress, can much more easily set their own standards.

So when the Daily Mail screams, ‘Let our teachers be heroes’ on their front page and complain that ‘militant unions’ are stopping teachers from returning to the workplace, backed up by the Education Secretary, is it any surprise that they can count on the support of the academy chief earning an annual salary of £550,000, working for the government’s flagship chain that bears the name of one of the Conservative Party’s most generous donors?

The National Education Union (NEU) have advised their members that:

… anyone in a vulnerable or extremely vulnerable category should work from home…
The NEU doesn’t not advise you to stay away from work in other circumstances simply to avoid contact with others.

NASUWT, the other main teaching union, advises that

… employees have a legal entitlement to a safe working environment…schools should not be asking anyone who may be at risk, or pose a risk to others, to declare they are safe to return to work.

This is hardly the Communist Manifesto. Yet teachers are being used as a test case for how much the government can get away with in terms of forcing people back to the workplace.

And let’s be clear: teachers want to return to work. Attempting to teach a class of 30 over Zoom is neither as effective nor as rewarding as teaching in person. But they don’t want to be ‘heroes’. They don’t want to be thrust back into a working environment that puts not just them but their entire household at risk for reasons of political expediency. They just want to be able to do their job, safely and effectively, in a supportive workplace that is receptive to their needs. When such a way is found, they will happily return to doing the brilliant work that they do.

Unions will play a hugely important role in the gradual phasing back of workers. We sideline them at our peril. And if we don’t support the teaching unions in arguing for a safe working environment, then we give the green light to a government that has consistently looked for opportunities to cement our economy as a profit-driven buyers’ market.

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I generally admire the dedicated teachers who genuinely care for our young people and go the extra mile to provide the best education possible. I have little time for politicians who treat education as a political football. I have no time for left wing teachers’ unions that confront the governments to score points at every opportunity at the expense of the the education that should be delivered by their members.

    The adults should sort out their differences and not spoil the crucial development of the children.

  • I find the idea that cash strapped LEAs would, by default, be more generous on safety than an academy to be rather idealistic. Our local school has had far more resources & advice (particularly on safeguarding) since joining its MAT. It was very quick to roll out the tech to support remote learning etc. It is being very proactive on measures to support reopening. Not all academies are bad..

  • John Marriott 15th May '20 - 7:30pm

    As someone who was very active in teacher politics (NAS/UWT) before becoming a councillor in 1987 I have always felt that my former colleagues had got a raw deal out of successive governments.

    While I appreciate that teachers currently have a strong case to be concerned about returning to school, there isn’t that much sympathy for them out there, at least judging by the reaction locally. Whether this is really justified is debatable; but it is clear that many view a possible resistance to opening up schools as further evidence that teacher unions in particular do not have the best interests of youngsters at heart.

    I am really sad that some people should feel this way. I’m afraid that, yet again, ordinary teachers are still paying the price for mistakes made in the 1970s when the education establishment allowed innovation to distance them from the real lives of the majority of our citizens.

  • “Work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t.
    Think how different this is to what he ought to have said: “If your employees can’t work from home, employers must adapt their working environments to the new Covid-secure standards.” “

    Interesting that you didn’t pick up on the obvious lack of clarity in the statement and even the more detailed guidance doesn’t really clarify it either.
    I suggest it was clear from the examples Boris gave that what was intended was that people who did jobs that could not be performed at home, such as construction workers, should go back to work. However, those who could not work from home due to home circumstances or personal motivational issues weren’t being encouraged to go back to work.

    Certainly, as far as one local organisation is concerned and have told staff that they were given laptops and desktop computers to enable them to work from home; their ‘work’ has been redefined and reorganised so that it can be performed from home, thus from a business viewpoint they can work from home and thus the offices will remain closed. If they are unable to organise their home life to enable them to work from home then they will need to return the IT equipment and be furloughed. These arrangements fully satisfy the “new Covid-secure standards”. Reopening the offices would serve little real purpose given the safe working environment regulations because until building usage changes have been fully worked through and adaptations made, an office that previously took circa 60 people, can only hold 20 – yet incur all the building running costs of 60… the choice is stark, continue to work from home and monthly costs are x, which is significantly lower than the normal monthly costs y, t is total value of the reserves: compare t/y to t/x, now which option gives the greatest chance of there still being a business come the end of the year.

  • Harries said the risk should be kept in perspective. The likelihood of anyone having the disease by the time schools do reopen will be diminished.

    I find this apologist for the government irritating.. The ‘r’ number is going up, not down.

    As for Hancocks answer about schools…The government’s own scientific advisors stated that ‘children can pass infection on at the same rate as adults’…Still, just go back to work without PPE, what’s a few ‘leftie teachers’ in the big picture…

  • David Gray says teachers want to return to work, but all those who can have never left work; indeed many have been working even over the normal Easter holiday period teaching those whose parents cannot have them at home.
    The issue over unions is completely misunderstood and is caused by government refusing to involve them in discussions. I know this from the NEU who contacted me as chair of the LDEA; see my comment on today’s article ‘Working with Teachers’.
    We must not confuse this fundamental flaw in government with the issue over academies, even though there is a connection. When Layla and a Labour MP asked the Secretary of State on Wednesday about consulting teachers’ representatives there was first no answer at all, then an indication that he had not consulted in advance. Even worse, information has emerged from Osama Rahman, an adviser on Education, that the decision about return of school children had not been made by the Department for Education.
    This is an example of a government led by Boris which is self-centred, arrogant and tries to put public against all groups who scrutinise and challenge its decisions, while putting out smooth, good-sounding but simplistic statements designed to gain popular appeal irrespective of the truth.

  • I understand and I may be wrong that private schools are nor returning until September.
    Is that right? A good few years ago when I was looking at private schools one of their selling point amongst others was that there would be no more than 15/16 pupils per class. Is that still the case? Perhaps all Ministers should declare their interest as to whether their children use private schools or state schools, then we can judge their concern about the coal face. Until a vacine is available there will always be a danger
    the question is how can we make it as small as possible.? The Tories appear to be very concerned about the interruption to education, yet have been happy over the last 10 years to reduce the education budget without any problem.Working towards perhaps
    an earlier start date for the next term, say middle of August may be the solution.

  • Nigel Jones 16th May '20 - 1:02pm

    Philip, you raise a good question about private schools, which include boarding schools. Their situation is rather different because parents there are probably more able to educate at home and their approach tends to be more on intensive learning in shorter periods of time; for example, having classes on a Saturday morning during term time, also smaller classes. Your suggestion of an earlier start in August raises the need to do things differently from normal; is our system flexible enough for that ?
    I am not convinced that Boris and this government are focussing primarily on interruption to education; they are concerned about getting people back to work and not having children at home is of course part of that. My local primary school head has had loads of calls this week from parents of all year groups asking to have their children back at school because (so they say) they are required to go back to work.
    In Australia, they began a policy of children going back one day a week, then two days a week and so on, i.e. a gradual process enabling schools to cope and children to get used to being at school again but in a rather different school environment. However, they seem now to be thinking of following our government’s approach.

  • I understand and I may be wrong that private schools are nor returning until September.
    Need to be careful, with headlines. Basically, no one is saying all children are included in the 1st of June return target, just specific year groups.

    private schools one of their selling point amongst others was that there would be no more than 15/16 pupils per class.
    From my understanding the research shows that class size mattered more in early years education and not so much at secondary – although I’m not aware of research that compares the results from conventional class teaching with plazza style teaching (ie. the difference between teaching classes of circa 30 and a year group of 100~150). From my experience of private schools their class size doesn’t give them any real advantage in the current CoViD19 situation as their classrooms are typically also smaller in size. Plus once you take into account the pinch points…

    What is not currently being talked about is the status of the traditional school summer holiday. It makes logical sense for it to be significantly shortened this year, so that those going back get the best part of two months in school (assuming 1st June return is viable). However, given many teachers have been working through the lockdown such a change would, quite reasonably, generate a strong push back from teachers.

    I suspect the best use of the summer vacation is to actually make substantive changes both to schools themselves to enable distancing but also to enhance the distance learning environment – in the recognition that CoViD19 isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

  • Rodney Watts 16th May '20 - 5:14pm

    @John Marriott. Agree completely. Having worked voluntarily in the youth sector for years, I left medical biochemistry research in 1976 to become a science teacher in Birmingham. Like you I became active in NASUWT, and naturally became a health and safety rep.,serving all union members and the school or college in general. I don’t think that anyone who was in service around that time and later will forget those days under Thatcher when education began to change from student centred to exam and league table centred. Now, with the Academy set up we have to consider profits.

    Once again as David Gray has indicated, people in Whitehall are trying to dictate terms, instead of negotiating. I don’t suppose for one moment that teaching unions are much different to when we were active – caring for staff and thereby caring for students. The sad thing, John, if you remember unions were not against the principle of a national curriculum, but were not happy with the rigidity and mode of testing. Now, as David has pointed out to Dan, it appears we are back to difficulties of maintaining reasonable standards nationally. The latter,of course , being more difficult because academies do not have to follow the NC. I just wonder if there are any problems that are arising from pupils changing schools.

    @Peter Wrigley Very good comment. I taught in secondary & tertiary sectors, but had a little experience as Council nominated primary governor with helping some of the weenies –also got great grand kids… @Nigel Thank you for input & the work you do – and thanks to all others.

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