Covid: Is the government finally beginning to listen to professionals?

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Earlier this term, as tensions over school re-opening mounted, UNISON and the NEU advised their members that they had the right to refuse to go into work on safety grounds. Jon Richards looks back at a chaotic few days and is hopeful of better collaboration with government in the months to come


Like most of you my Christmas break was screwed up by the government’s breath-taking last-minute policy swings. This is a time of crisis and we should expect some errors, but even Pavlov’s dog would have learned to stop making the same mistakes by now.

In December, we could all see cases increasing in schools and the community. So UNISON was far from alone when we suggested that schools should break-up early. Indeed, a fair few councils and multi-academy trusts (MATs) tried to do so, but were slapped down with legal threats from the government. As a result, hundreds of staff and pupils across the country ended up isolating on Christmas Day.

Then with the rapid spread of the new Covid variant, many of us called for a delay to January opening. But ministers continued to insist that full school opening must go ahead.

Inevitably, the government belatedly accepted the severity of the situation, yet once again the reaction was confusing. Solemnly announced as a lockdown, the approach to education was partial, with a delayed opening of secondaries along and a puzzling “contingency framework” lockdown of primaries in some London boroughs (swiftly extended to all of London when the government couldn’t explain how the decision had been reached).

The late changes and contradictory public messaging meant that school staff were left baffled. The prime minister told them that to stop the new variant from spreading they had to lockdown, stay at home and avoid their nearest and dearest. But at the same time it was fine for them to get on the bus and go to work in primaries full of pupils and other staff.

Only days before the spring term was due to begin, this announcement caused huge anxiety and a massive demand from our members for action. So along with our sister National Education Union, we urgently advised staff that we felt that the blanket opening of schools was unsafe and that they had the legal right not to be placed in serious and imminent danger.

We knew our emergency action was not a long-term solution and it was new legal territory. So when the government finally saw sense and belatedly moved all schools into national lockdown we were relieved. Although it should be noted that this was another belated and confused decision, coming barely one day after Boris Johnson had declared schools safe (on January 3) and after millions of primary school children had been sent into school for one day (on January 4) to mix in their bubbles.

What proved incredibly frustrating in all this was the government’s reaction to our position. We had already started work on amending our advice when the government threatened us with legal action. We robustly defended our position and continued to update our website with new guidance.

Gavin Williamson then told Parliament that we and the NEU had accepted that our advice was incorrect – we absolutely had not. The Department for Education (DfE) followed this up by emailing all schools seeking to undermine our guidance to our members. This meant that unfortunately we had to add to school leaders’ inboxes by writing to them pointing out the DfE’s inaccuracies.

The DfE response sums up the bunker that the government has got itself into. Ministers seem to think that consultation means that they make a decision and then meet with sector leaders to tell them why they are right, rather than taking on board legitimate concerns.

This has left employers and school leaders exasperated and even some of the government’s strongest advocates are now increasingly critical.

Some good may come out of all this. For the most part, the DfE’s civil servants have always tried to be helpful, but they have been hamstrung by government policy and ministerial diktat. However, there are signs of change.

The new permanent secretary at the DfE looks to be a new broom and has already begun to engage with sector leaders in a better way. Early signs are of real engagement and a recognition that all stakeholders could help in shaping policy for the future. This is how it should be – the government working in partnership with the sector.

With the vaccination programme up and running and the government finally working with the sector to solve education problems, it might turn out to be a happier new year than looked possible at the beginning of term.

  • Jon Richards is national secretary, education at UNISON. Read his previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/33KATZ0


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