Why we must stop union trouble-makers from blocking our children's safe return to classrooms

THE start of a new school year is always a special milestone in the annual calendar.

After the long summer holidays, it signifies hope at the chance of fresh beginnings and excitement at the prospect of change.

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Next week, the new term will have greater meaning than ever for pupils, professionals and parents.

At last, after an unprecedented lockdown of six months, all schools are due to re-open, representing a giant leap back towards normality.

But the damage caused by the Coronavirus disruption has been severe.

Many parents have been prevented from returning to work.

Young people’s education has been badly undermined, especially because the quality of online learning has been so uneven. One study found that a fifth of pupils had less than an hour’s instruction a day.

Moreover, social activities and friendships – which are a vital part of growing up – have been heavily restricted.

Damaging education vacuum

The exam chaos over the last fortnight was a fitting symbol of the vacuum created by the absence of proper schooling.

No advanced society can function when a vital sector like education is temporarily paralysed.

That is why it is so important that the Government succeeds in its goal of seeing a full return to the classroom.

As Boris Johnson put it at the weekend, “it is vital for pupils’ education. It is vital for their welfare. It’s vital for their physical and, indeed, mental well-being.”

Given the Government’s mixed record on its management of the Covid crisis, this will be a big test.

From the inadequate supply of protective gear to the botched imposition of quarantine rules, Ministers have got it badly wrong at times. They cannot afford another fiasco next week.

But to do that, they will have to curtail the influence of militant teaching unions, which thrive in a climate of scare-mongering and grievance.

Militant teaching unions turn every pebble of difficulty into a giant boulder of obstruction

Full of negativity, these hardened left-wing operators turn every pebble of difficulty into a giant boulder of obstruction. They are the abominable no men and women, the ultimate “can’t do” brigade.

To overcome the unions’ capacity for trouble-making, reassurances about safety will be absolutely crucial.

Most teachers are keen to go back to work, but they want to know schools will not be dangerous environments.

That is why the recent upbeat advice from medical experts has been so welcome.

It is clear from the Covid experience around the world that not only are children less likely to transmit the disease than any other group, but also that schools are safer than most other workplaces.

Kids more likely to die from flu

Yesterday, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries pointed out that a child is more likely to be involved in a traffic accident or die from flu than to be harmed by Coronavirus.

That message was also spelt out by her boss Chris Whitty, who said on Sunday that the damage to health caused by a continued schools lockdown is potentially greater than the impact of Covid.

“The balance of risk is very strongly in favour of children going to school,” he declared, adding the chances of catching the disease “are incredibly small.”

In fact, there is now hard evidence to prove this.

Although the vast majority of schools were closed since March, over one million pupils – such as the children of essential workers – went back to the classroom in June.

Yet a comprehensive study by Public Health England showed that in the subsequent weeks until the end of term, just 70 children and 128 staff tested positive for Covid-19 – and nearly all these infections occurred outside the school.

There were hardly any cases of children passing on the disease to each other, or to their teachers. Other research from around the world has come to the same conclusion.

Unions exploiting anxiety

But none of this seems to matter to the teaching unions, eager to exploit anxiety in pursuit of their anti-Tory agenda.

These are the organisations which for decades have blocked every major reform of the education system and have defended every outdated working practice.

With depressing inevitability, they have continually put their own narrow interests before the wider needs of pupils.

They want the respect due to trained professionals but they frequently display the rebellious spirit of the permanent agitators.

“Strike action is a very powerful tool,” said Amanda Martin, the President of the 450,000-strong National Education Union (NEU) in an interview with the Communist Morning Star newspaper in 2018, adding, “I’ve run demos and rallies and worked with trade councils to bring everyone out and that’s brilliant.”

Led by the NEU, the unions have brought the same attitude to the Coronavirus crisis. Instead of looking for solutions, they have endlessly exaggerated problems.

One Whitehall insider says of Dr Mary Bousted, the £101,800-a-year joint general secretary of the NEU, “it’s all about the union, to hell with the teachers who want to get back into the classroom – let alone the children.”

A left-wing radical, Bousted jokes that the word “strike” was one of the first she learnt as a child.

Dr Mary Bousted, the £101,800-a-year joint general secretary of the NEU, jokes that the word 'strike' was one of the first she learnt as a child

Hers is not the voice of co-operation and enterprise, so it is hardly surprising that the Government has struggled to get schools reopened.

In June, a planned major return was thwarted by the unions, dealing a severe blow to Gavin Williamson’s credibility.

One left-wing website gushed that the continued shutdown was due “to the hard work of NEU branch secretaries and rank and file militants galvanising the members.”

In the months since, an alliance of unions – including Bousted’s NEU and Unite led by the notorious Merseyside militant Len McCluskey – have fought a lengthy battle against a swift re-opening.

200-point 'wreckers' charter'

Central to this effort at sabotage was a vast 200-point checklist of detailed questions which the Department for Education was told it had to answer.

Dubbed by critics “a wreckers’ charter”, the list included queries such as “will lidded bins with double bagging be available in every classroom”, “will dedicated space be available for any breastfeeding women to express milk” and “has behaviour policy been reviewed to acknowledge the increased level of trauma and anxiety experienced by pupils?”

Some Tories complained that the union was playing politics.

Robert Halfon, the chairman of the Education Select Committee was amazed at the warped priorities: “It is incredible that not one of these nit-picking questions asks the most important thing of all – what’s best for the kids?”

Even as September approaches, the whining and resistance has not ceased. “The unions need to stand firm and protect their members,” argues socialist teacher Martin Powell-Davies.

In the latest ruse, the public sector outfit UNISON not only wants its members to wear masks in the classroom – something for which there is no scientific evidence of any need – but also to have extra funding for deep cleaning.

“Schools need more money to pay for specially trained cleaners, rather than relying on other staff who are busy enough already,” says Jon Richards, UNISON’s head of education.

Empty accusations

The moan about over-stretched budgets is a favourite of the union movement but it is an empty accusation.

The Government is pouring an extra £7.1 billion into education, while this summer it was announced that teachers’ pay is to go up by an average of 3.1 per cent, a bigger increase than any other public sector workers received.

But that did nothing to stop the combination of whingeing and shroud-waving.

The mentality of the hardliners was embodied in a recent statement from the NEU’s far left “Education Solidarity Network” which set out a series of demands to “make sure safety comes first.”

Among them were: “smaller class sizes to allow adequate physical distancing”; arrangements “for rotas and home learning to be produced in consultation with parents”; “local risk assessments to include staggered outdoor breaks, sanitising, provision of transparent coverings to enable access to lip reading and facial expression”; and “weekly onsite testing of staff”.

Above all, the Network called for extra funding “to implement these measures.” If there were any question of a risk to safety, the union should “prepare for a national strike ballot.”

That was so typical. This lot seem to feel more comfortable on the picket line than in the classroom. The Solidary Network might be seen as extreme, but its carping outlook runs right through the union

Yesterday, the NEU’s joint general secretary was bleating on the airwaves about the risks of new Covid spikes: “Staff, parents and pupils are being sorely let down by the government because of a lack of a Plan B and of ensuring robust track and trace is in place throughout the country. We believe the Government is negligent in the extreme.”

The charge of negligence might be applied with more force to the NEU, whose hostile stance has made the return such an exhausting obstacle course.

The militants cannot be allowed to prevail next week.

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