Harlow MP Robert Halfon demands answers from teaching unions on school reopening plans

Education: Secondary / Wed 17th Jun 2020 at 05:29pm

Teachers’ unions have denied suggestions by Conservative MPs they have been “actively obstructive” over the reopening of schools in England.

THE House of Commons Education Select Committee, chaired by Harlow MP Robert Halfon, met “virtually” this morning with a rigorous programme of questioning about school re-openings for the teacher and education trade unions. The evidence session forms part of the Committee’s inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services.


Dr Mary Bousted, the Joint-General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT, Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and Jon Richards, National Secretary of Education at UNISON faced tough questions from the cross-party group of MPs about the unions’ apparent opposition to Government reopening plans, including direction by one union to their teaching and support staff members not to engage with their schools on reopening.

The chair opened the questioning citing the statistics released this week that four million pupils have not been in regular contact with their teachers and 2.3 million children are doing (at most) one hour a day of home learning under lockdown. The NEU and the NASUWT have both set five tests for the Government before schools can reopen but Mr Halfon was conscious to point out that neither seek to assess the risk of damage to the life chances of millions of children during the school closures.

Given the rising vulnerabilities that children face, including online harms and mental health challenges, he asked the unions: “At what point does the risk to children’s educational futures start to outweigh the immediate health risk posed by the virus? Are you weighing up these risks too, to the children who are at home not learning and suffering enormously?”

Julie McCulloch of ASCL responded: “Every establishment is balancing those two things to the best of their ability.”

Mr Halfon went on: “Do you believe that schools [that] are reopening and may not necessarily be following the 5 tests set by the NASUWT – are they mismanaging things or should they be open? …Are schools wrong to open if they don’t accept the 5 tests set by the NASUWT?”

Dr Patrick Roach of the NASUWT replied: “The NASUWT has never set 5 tests which schools must satisfy before reopening. What we’ve said to [the] Government is that there are 5 conditions that they need to demonstrate around the phased reopening of schools.”

Mr Halfon then proceeded to go through the tests with the unions: “Okay, let me look at the 5 conditions that are not tests… You say that ‘teachers [should be] guaranteed the same protections as other workers’. What ‘other workers’? Are you talking about workers in Primark? Context, surely, is important. You can’t compare with nurses for example, working in [difficult] conditions in hospitals.”

The tests attracted heavy criticism from former teacher, Jonathan Gullis MP, who said:

“I’ve never been so frustrated in my entire life sitting in this Committee listening to what’s been said, as someone who’s spent eight years in the teaching profession… I joined the NASUWT…and yet, I’m sorry to say, these five conditions are effectively five tests. As for the NEU, running a political campaign which came through all MPs’ inboxes to basically make sure schools did not open, I just think is utterly disgraceful. The fact that [Labour MPs] David Blunkett and Alan Johnson…have said that Unions have got it wrong.

Dr Patrick Roach of the NASUWT said: “Yeah, well, I mean, I respect the right of Members of the Committee to have their views.”

Jonathan Gullis MP went on to say: “I have an email from the NEU to its members on 11 May saying that… staff were not to engage with any planning based on the wider opening of schools and if your Head asks if you will be available for wider working after 1 June, we urge you to reply you are awaiting further advice from your union.

“What support has not been given to kids that could have been given? I am absolutely outraged at the sheer damage that Unions have done to the teaching profession and I think there [are] a lot of questions for unions to answer.”

Dr Mary Bousted of the NEU agreed that they had directed members not to engage with their schools “in the absence of any Government guidance on how this [engagement] was to be done”.

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13 Comments for Harlow MP Robert Halfon demands answers from teaching unions on school reopening plans:

2020-06-17 19:27:28

I can't help but think that this 'demand' of the teaching unions is RH's poorly judged attempt to support the current Prime Minister In Name Only after today's PMQ. Oddly for PMQ's, the PMINO started asking questions instead of answering them, which is an obvious deflection tatic. If RH really had such a concern for shools and education, why did he not bother showing up for the school's hustings during the GE? Was sitting outside the Shell station more important than presenting the Conservative education policies? If RH is really concerned for the damage to the life chances of millions of children, why did he vote for the policies that have resulted in schools needing to fund raising for text books and other essentials? The latest U-turn on free school meals is welcome news for many but it is a U-turn that should not have been necessary in the first place.

2020-06-18 06:02:58

As I stated earlier, these unions are laying down the rules for a virtual strike of the politically biased teachers. How low can they sink, using children as a weapon for their very mis-guided policies. The idiot kthe5, yet again is so warped that she ignores the outrageous behaviour of these unions, and the fact that we're all paying taxes to pay the wages of the cretins who are refusing to act for the benefit of our children.

2020-06-18 07:35:24

It's a comment on society that peadiatritions say that damage is being done to children by being with their families. Were children so damaged over millennia before schools existed? Perhaps we need to look a system that has happened quite recently over the years since after the war that now it is a necessity that it takes the full time income of two adults going out to work rather than one or two part time. Besides you are all missing the point. Even if there were a phased return via blended learning ie part time in school, most children are out of school. Online learning has been a great success for many, some children are moving/ racing ahead, where schools are following the school timetable students are progressing. Teaching online is hard work because teachers are busy transforming lessons into this new media. What's needed is a schools version of The Open University, The Open School to facilitate blended learning and to bring schools out of the Victorian factory production model and into the 21st century. This would be a response that could be up and running faster than any other. Whilst there is no vaccine or medication that will stop people getting the virus we can't walk back to "normal ". The average a secondary school teacher is in close contact with between 1000 and 1500 students for periods on an hour at a time per timetabled cycle. Plus sharing a resource centre and common of between 40 and 100 adults. School corridors are congested. Most teachers are middle aged and elderly. It's odd that government says the science that would give a measure of transmission from adolescent to adults hasn't been done, but used anecdotal evidence from Australia based on 8 individuals as being sufficiently robust to recommend a return. Teachers know from millions upon millions of hours experience that teenagers do readily and easily infect teachers with bugs. They infect each other and get sick but teachers get really ill. Instead of entering a blame game and doing nothing much we need action and 21st Century tec can fill the gap. It's not about the disadvantaged the most disadvantaged groups in the 1950s remain the most disadvantaged today despite full time schooling: the cry to send children back denies this truth and is based on the premise that schools are a cheap child minding service.

2020-06-18 09:45:31

The politicisation of this issue from both sides has been disgraceful. But at least one side has been following independent scientific evidence. Halfon is right to question the unions and Harlow Labour for the stupid 5 tests that would have made the situation worse. However, it is wrong to say they have been obstructive, as they had a genuine motive to protect people. The issue has, and has always been, an argument based on a political motive rather than following the scientific evidence. Sadly, that union argument wouldn't protect people and it was just anti-government rather than working collaboratively to find a solution. It had no regard for the science whatsoever, which is the real issue and what RH should be questioning. Now, the scientific evidence has shown that nowhere in the world has seen a second spike due to reopening schools and to children who've been in isolation. Additionally, if teachers are at risk, well they were more at risk when schools were open anyway looking after children of key workers, many of whom will have been at a much higher risk of catching COVID-19. So, the protecting teachers argument goes right out of the window, because they've already been exposed to the highest possible risk before now. Equally the virus thrives in spring and autumn, so waiting until September would just unleash the virus on everyone at the same time, because it won't go away, so it is best to stagger school return while the virus is less potent in the summer months. Novoman touches on some good points, but now with both parents at work and the economy in play it’s a really different time. On vaccination, without the vaccine, no we cannot return to what we consider normal, and vaccination is really unlikely until next year at the earliest if at all. But in comparison to other diseases, lets pick flu, measles and chickenpox, these are all passed round in school and we are lucky to be at a point where either vaccination is common, or immunity is high. But all three of these still kill people and children every year. That's with a vaccine available for all three. They are of comparable risk to COVID-19. Yet we never have a problem sending children to school with these risks, so why now? Even with a vaccine, a risk will still be there. This is here to stay so we need to adapt to this threat that is still with us. So please stop the politics on this issue and look at the cold hard scientific facts. RH should call for an apology from the Labour Party over scaremongering with 5 useless tests. The unions should be slammed for using evidence which is not scientifically correct and it has to be asked why the hell has the Labour party followed the advice of a body that has nothing to do with public health or science? Even the BMA, who were referenced, changed their stance on returning to school, yet this was ignored by the Labour party. So come on, RH drop the politics and question what really went wrong here, and Labour, get your act together, stop being popularist and difficult and use independent science when talking about an issue of public health and science.

2020-06-18 12:23:32

"Adapting " means acquiring herd immunity. The cost is the lives of grandad and grandma. The easing is not about health but about generating profits for those at the top. We need to differentiate between primary and secondary schools and identify what schools do. The discussion such as it is is simplistic. Schools educate, they are places where children socialize and are child minders. These are different functions and each function can be met in different ways. From comments so far it seems that contributions come from people who aren't secondary school teachers and have little experience of what life and the physical environment is in secondary schools is like today. If they were they'd know that the buildings aren't designed to cope with social distancing, also should children be carriers then schools would become super spreading hubs. As for second wave it's happening in the countries that were respectively the most locked down and the most effective testers, China and S Korea. Given our track record of being the worst per 100, 000 deaths anywhere it seems only a matter of weeks before the death rate here rises. As for the unions they have consulted members and their policies reflect the.view of teachers in the classroom, teachers who know what the conditions are like in school. Meantime as said time passes and whatever strategy is adopted many students need high quality courses, resources and courses, only the creation of The Open School could deliver on this. QED

2020-06-18 13:12:11

Novoman, that is one view but I'd like to challenge a couple of points for your consideration, not to say you are wrong, but to provide an alternative view for consideration. Herd immunity - it was a critical failing of this government to shoot for herd immunity as a way of dealing with this upfront. Herd immunity will eventually be the way, but this right now is ensuring that not everybody gets this at once and overrun hospital resources. Herd immunity at the start just meant we hoped everyone would get it and not need hospital treatment, that was never going to happen. Sadly until a vaccine this is not going away, so yes people are going to get sick and some sadly will die. But s to my previous point, this still happens with Flu, measles and chickenpox. Yes there are around 50-70 deaths from chickenpox complications each year. Comments not coming from teachers and unions - ok yes right to consult membership, but, there's one huge problem with this. Teachers are not scientists or public health. They have the right to comment of course, but they have no understanding of disease transmission, how vaccines work, how herd immunity works etc. So, while teachers are an important voice to getting the classroom setting correct, and the welfare of children mentally and educationally, they are totally out of place to dictate the health risks. You wouldn't get a scientist trying to teach maths so why is it ok for a teacher to be best to place what the science is That's bonkers. So, what unions and Labour have done is rely on this group, who are thinking with feelings, not scientific knowledge, to fight against a scientific decision and adapt to a world with an infectious disease. Death rates - we don't have the worst per 100,000 death rate, i think we're 4th or 5th. Belgium are top. Still not great but not a correct statement. Equally we record care home deaths whereas Italy do not for example. Also, its cases who've had COVID-19 not died from it as a direct result. So, this is a really dangerous statement to make as you're comparing apples and oranges. You're also forgetting our rates of obesity, the number of people living over 80 and social deprivation factors which vary country to country and contribute to outcomes. That full analysis cannot happen until we have passed most of the infections. Second wave - it's not happening in these countries. They are getting localised blips which they are locking down. As mentioned previously, this virus hasn't gone away, but it may have got the people most likely to die first, and then it'll get weaker in terms of number of deaths, but it isn't actually changing the transmission etc. Generating profits at the top - i really disagree with this. Many families with children have had to try and work from home or not be able to work at all. Returning to work will really help those families get back to their jobs and generate an income for them. Yeah ok, the top will benefit, but also ordinary working people will benefit too by doing their jobs and having children at school getting an appropriate education rather than try and do the two at home. There's more than just the super rich, there's the average family too. But i do agree on your final point, we need high quality education and to think about new ways to deliver this.

2020-06-18 18:39:10

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/boris-johnson-tories-robert-halfon_uk_5eeb8f89c5b66e6e0a50d349 "It comes amid rising Tory discontent at No.10’s handling of coronavirus, the Dominic Cummings lockdown scandal, and repeated U-turns in recent weeks, and after officers of the powerful 1922 backbench MPs’ committee reportedly urged Boris Johnson to tear down the “iron curtain” surrounding the PM." Just incase anyone has missed it, todays U-turn is the government has ditched the NHS Contact Tracing app and U-turned to the Apple-Google model. This (the NHS app) was the "world beating" app that the PMINO promised would be ready mid May, then possibly for September, and now, no date given. I seem to remember that schools were only going to open once the "world beating" track & trace system was up & running because schools would not be safe without it. At the time of writing, schools still have to implement social distancing spacing of 2m (sorry Brexiters, 6ft 6 & 3/8 in). I have seen reports that this reduces the capacity of classrooms from 25-30 pupils down to 8-10. Therefore, in order to fully open each school has to somehow find extra room. Imagine a typical school - say Burnt Mill Academy. It would need the equivalent of at least 2 more Burnt Mill Academies to come close to capacity. And increase the number of staff by 300%. I haven't checked, but does Harlow have any unused Burnt Mill Academies in reserve? Blaming the unions does not solve the fact that the promised, "would beating" track & trace system is still not implemented. Blaming the unions does not magic up extra classrooms or teaching staff. Blaming the unions is just another distraction technique.

2020-06-18 19:03:21

Blaming the lack of track and trace is an equal distraction I’m afraid. It works well in other countries however you have to give up a load of civil liberties and privacy for it to be very effective. The main issue I have here is why did the Labour Party listen so much to a trade union for teachers, who rightly defend their members, to come up with a strategy for a public health problem. Ignoring the independent scientific advice. Yes blaming the unions is a slight miss to an extent, they did what they thought was right I guess, but somebody within Labour needs to accept that their 5 tests are flawed and potentially more harmful, and that getting these 5 tests from a non scientific organisation is really more politically motivated popularism than genuinely helpful guidance.

2020-06-18 19:41:07

"but somebody within Labour needs to" Does the excellent Jess Phillips say the right things? https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/children-school-now-government-plans-safe-labour-jess-phillips-449275 "Second wave – it’s not happening in these countries. " Localised or not, second waves are happening. Today in Germany and the Navajo Nation have re-instated lockdowns.

tony edwards
2020-06-19 08:53:39

Let's be very clear it is not the Unions preventing a return to school, it is the failure of the Government to have any clear strategy for English schools as to how they will address the very practical issues Coronavirus poses. The physical size of classrooms The number of classrooms or alternative spaces required The number of teachers required to teach smaller groups The cleaning regime Etc Etc Etc They don't help themselves when they issue "Guidance" two days after the date when they are expecting children to return. See link below for latest example. It was issued on the 3rd June https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-school-closures/guidance-for-schools-about-temporarily-closing Incidentally it was reported in today's Telegraph (not exactly an organ of socialist propaganda) that whilst it was the Governments intention to have all children back in school by September there was no guarantee that this would happen. And as yet there is no clear strategy. I am not saying any of this is easy, but the attempt by this Government to deflect the blame for their own failure on to others is frankly inexcusable.

2020-06-19 10:39:12

Unfortunately the teaching profession has many teachers over 50 and 60 and even 70 years of age. The groups that are progressively more and highly vulnerable and most likely to die. Schools simply haven't the capacity nor are designed to cope. Going back now would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. One doesn't need to be a doctor to see the figures, the writing is on the wall, the uk at the top of a league, most deaths per million population, a national disaster that hardly inspires confidence in whatever measures Public Health England or the Government propose. Whatever happens, and it's most likely to be blended learning the most immediate, effective, affordable and productive measures to take would be to enhance online learning by creating The Open School, a schools version of the Open University, applying the laws wrt normal attendance to online attendance and giving free broadband and hardware to students. Throwing money randomly at online tutoring isn't the answer. Bringing all learning providers together and working together through schools and teachers would be a rational way forward.

2020-06-19 11:32:09

Most private schools are hard at it ? So.

2020-06-19 20:28:37

I wish to apologise. Previously I refered to the failed "NHS Contact Tracing app". I have now seen that this failed app had nothing to do with the NHS. The NHS has nothing to do with it. This was an un-tendered commercial app, endorsed by "Door" Matt Hancock & given to SERCO to deliver. SERCO, Hancock and this government failed - not our NHS. I wish to apolgise to the NHS for smearing their good name by associating them with the failed SERCO & Hancock Contact Tracing app.

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