Britain  •  NEU - National Education Union  •  UNISON union  •  Youth

School closures: skeleton service or community organisation?

21 March 2020

Johnson closes schools the wrong way, workers and students can set it right

Boris Johnson announced the closure of all schools in England, two days after saying that was not necessary and potentially counter-productive and one day after the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and Eton) closed theirs.

He gave two days’ notice, without any detail about who the ‘key workers’ were whose children the schools would continue to provide childcare for. Nor how free school meals would be delivered. Nor whether agency (supply) workers, outsourced catering and cleaning staff would be paid. Nor what teachers, teaching assistants, pastoral staff, etc. should be doing to carry out their functions.

Johnson compounded this with the callous and thoughtless cancellation of GCSEs and ‘A’ Levels. Even though his plan would, he claimed, end in victory in 12 weeks, they weren’t to be postponed; this cohort would never take them.

Year 11 students at my school were in shock to hear that today was their last day: no exams, no prom, no nothing. Instead grades will be awarded according to a combination of teachers’ predictions (which nationally tend to underscore black and female grades) and their SATS score from primary school. Welcome back the 11-Plus – with a vengeance!

This generation already has a right to be very angry at the system that is stealing their future by burning the planet – now the government is robbing them of the opportunity to prove themselves. They will continue their education, not least in this latest, triple crisis, in how this world is run and how it must be changed.

Fight for our rights and safety

Because of their central role in education and childcare, with buildings and a range of facilities at the centre of the community, schools can play a central role in the fight for wider workers’ rights in the crisis, and the social and health provision to get through it.

The Johnson government wants us to run a skeleton service for key workers.  Education workers, auxiliary staff and pupils, as well as their families, must use this unfortunate necessity as an opportunity to turn the schools into real community schools, based on the principle of equality, participation and workers’ and users’ control.

First off, staff must be guaranteed their full wages for the duration of the closure. Schools still have their budgets. All employees, permanent or not, agency or on the school books, can therefore continue to be paid. Likewise contracted out caterers and cleaners should be paid in full – or the contracts revoked and the workers brought in-house.

Next we should demand that schools should interpret as widely as necessary the idea of who are key workers: not just NHS staff, supermarket workers and the police, but all distribution, transport, council service providers and anyone who cannot ‘work from home’ or take time off.

The Resolution Foundation writes that nine-tenths of relatively poor workers (£320 a week or less) cannot work from home. The IWGB says that their members, like Deliveroo couriers, have to work longer for less due to the drop in demand. No way can they afford childcare or stay at home with young children. Free, quality state provision of childcare for all who need it or choose it is the answer.

The vulnerable will suffer most in any social – and economic – lockdown. Again we insist schools apply a broad definition to the terms of which students and families are ‘vulnerable’ based on need, not the dictates of an uncaring, neoliberal government seeking to protect business over workers and the poor.

Not only should the normal support of SEND, mental health and pastoral specialists be maintained and strengthened in the circumstances of growing anxiety and isolation, so too should free school meals continue to reach the families.

Schools in the community

Whether free school meals are eaten on site in staggered shifts or delivered to more distant or ill students to their doorstep, they are a necessary and meaningful gesture of social solidarity as much as meeting a material need.  This could be done by staff and the students together in secondary schools at least, with the help of the volunteer distribution networks that have sprung up.

And we can organise quality childcare. In my school more than a dozen staff members volunteered to run sessions, ranging from origami to film clubs to art projects and debates. These could be opened up to other activists in the community and students themselves to make it a real teach-in, as we saw in the recent UCU strike.  Particularly in secondary schools, students should help decide what to discuss, including issues important to them, and plan and run sessions too. As much as possible, these should allow cleaners and catering staff to take part, usually excluded from the educational activities of the school.

The participation of the students as equals in teach-ins, the day to day running of the school and its emergency service – a great practical education – requires student self-organisation and points towards the development of a students’ union coordinating across schools.

It is true that partially widening the number of students using the school is a potential safety hazard. That is why testing is crucial in knowing how to make schools that continue to provide for social need a safe environment. Only by testing can we know who has the disease and should follow medical guidance and who can safely work. The Labour Party and unions must ramp up the pressure on the government and force it to raise the level of testing and test all workers and children.

Finally it is clear that, even with these proposals, it is not necessary for school staff to have to work five days a week. Four – or even three – plus options, where possible, to work from home would alleviate the need for travel and unnecessary social contact. It makes sense to no longer require us to come into work every day, but that cannot be done at the expense of a pay cut. Full pay must still be guaranteed.

Workers’ control

Ever since this crisis started, Johnson has taken gambles with our lives. Until recently his government held to a model that Professor Neil Ferguson has shown would have cost 270,000 lives. At each stage – denial, let it rip, suppression – he has put the interests of business first: private wealth before public health.

Schools, because they are the natural organising ground of the youth, are a key battleground in the fight for workers’ and users’ control of public and private services, in the battle to defeat the crisis. If we take this opportunity, we can get a glimpse of a world run without the profit motive and with the working class in charge – in a word, socialism. And if we get a taste of that, why would we ever want to go back to the old ways?

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