Union calls for staff to shun reopening plans are ‘counter-productive’, says largest trust CEO

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Union demands that their members should not engage in planning to reopen schools on June 1 are “counter-productive”, the head of the country’s largest academy trust has said.

In a letter to the National Education Union and teachers’ union NASUWT, United Learning chief executive Sir Jon Coles said schools need to plan properly and safely – but finding the best solutions involve staff in planning.

Both the unions oppose government plans to start welcoming some year groups back from June 1.

But Coles wrote: “I think that your advice to your members not to speak to leaders about planning places both leaders and other teachers in a difficult position and is counter-productive in risking making it harder to produce the best plan.”

We should be working together so that we can speak with one voice at the time of re-opening

He said there is a “great deal of common ground”, including that wider opening should not happen until the government’s five tests are met.

“It therefore seems to me that we need to be talking to each other and I hope that you will feel able to change your advice to members to support constructive engagement and detailed involvement in planning at school level,” he added.

“More generally, we should be working together so that – if at all possible – we can speak with one voice at the time of re-opening, giving confidence to parents and teachers.”

He added the trust, which runs 72 schools according to government data, is “taking great care to support the welfare of our colleagues your members and if there are things we can do to give you the fullest confidence in that, we are more than happy to discuss that”.

It comes as Jenny Harries, the government’s deputy chief medical officer, said today there are a “number of signals” that the back-to-school plan is a “safe place to go”.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson also said that a decreasing rate of infections would give them the “green light” to reopen from June 1.

He also wouldn’t be drawn into criticising unions who are opposing the government’s plans at today’s coronavirus briefing, instead saying his “door is always open”.

But Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary, said: “The bottom line is that no teacher or child should be expected to go into schools until it can be demonstrated that it is safe for them to do so.”

He said schools are looking to the government for “clear and unequivocal guidance on the health and safety measures they will need to have in place prior to reopening”.

Meanwhile the NEU has its own five tests it believes must be met before more pupils are allowed back to school. Their stance has also been backed by the British Medical Association, a trade union and professional association for doctors.

The union, which represents more than 400,000 teachers, leaders and support staff, said yesterday it was “pleased” with a meeting with government science and medical officers but that “very many questions that we asked were not addressed in the time available”.

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  1. I am sure that once Sir Jon Coles can guarantee to staff that they will not die from contracting the virus at school, nor pass the virus on to anyone who dies as a result, and that no child will die not pass the virus onto anyone who dies as a result, then staff would be more than happy to return. We do what we do because we love our jobs!
    Until that point he’s in some other dimension if he’s expecting staff to have any faith in a government that saw this virus coming and did nothing to protect its citizens…that’s before we get into how the government have treated school staff in the preceding years!

  2. Janet Downs

    Jon Cole, United Learning, is right that primary schools, indeed all schools, will have to open eventually. But starting the re-opening on 1 June, especially in the piecemeal way proposed, is not just unsafe but impractical.
    The virus isn’t going to go away soon. We’re going to have to find ways of living with it.Far better to prepare schools for opening in September.
    This will require extensive planning both locally and nationally. Each school is different. Heads, staff and governing bodies will need to consider what measures will need to be taken in their unique schools: how to keep children and staff as safe as possible; rewriting the timetable; opening/closing times; use of space; movement round the school, transport issues.
    Jon Cole said schools would need twice as many classrooms and twice as many teachers. What is perhaps needed is an initiative such as Raising the School Leaving Age (RoSLA). Portable classrooms need to be provided double quick (Government, please note).
    Twice as many teachers is far more difficult than premises. I believe in high-quality teacher education but we live in extraordinary times. Creative use of TAs; persuading trained teachers who’ve left the profession to return.
    ‘Opening in September’ should be the mantra not ‘Opening in chaos in June.
    (This comment was first posted on Kent Independent Education Advice)

    • Mark Watson

      Why will “Opening in September” be any different?

      Come 1 September there will be no “guarantee” that teachers (or indeed anyone who is not completely isolated from human contact) will be completely safe from catching Coronavirus. And no guarantee that if you do catch it, it won’t prove fatal.

      So why does everyone seem to be taking the position that opening on 1 June is bad, but opening in September is somehow going to be absolutely fine?

      The NEU’s five tests are: 1. much lower numbers of cases, 2. a national plan for social distancing, 3. access to regular testing for children and staff, 4. a whole-school strategy and 5. protection for the vulnerable.

      Firstly those are so vague as to be meaningless. Just like the Government’s. What does “much lower” mean? What does “access to testing” mean? Secondly, by any metric, opening in September is going to be safer than opening in June. Obviously. But then again, opening in January 2021 is going to be safer than opening in September 2020. And so on.

      Coronavirus is much more dangerous than the flu. Clearly. But people still die of the flu, and we continue opening schools during the flu season, and even when bird flu and swine flu were doing the rounds. No-one starts talking about wanting a ‘guarantee’ that teachers and/or children won’t catch the flu if they go to school, and we will get to the same position with Coronavirus.

      I’m not saying we should blindly open schools on 1 June. Far from it. There is a lot of scientific and medical advice that will need to be relied on for that answer. (As a side note I fully support the lockdown and believe it’s been essential in preventing an even worse catastrophe.)

      But let’s not kid ourselves – schools WILL need to reopen at a point when Coronavirus is still a threat and is still causing fatalities worldwide. We should be talking about it being an acceptable risk, and one where all reasonable measures are taken.

      • Janet Downs

        Mark – your right that schools will have to open eventually. But a September opening will allow for the measures to be taken to make schools as safe as possible in the circumstances (your acceptable risk). It’s not possible to make any environment 100% safe but re-opening in early September would allow time for proper preparation and planning. It would still be a tight call but better than the piecemeal approach being set out by the government.