Safety fears over Covid in schools
16th December 2020
Safety fears over Covid in schools: Scottish teachers vote for industrial action as Labour London Councils call for early school closures
Scottish teachers in three areas have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action over Covid safety fears.
Results of teacher ballots in three other Scottish council areas are awaited, while staff in the main support staff union in Glasgow are also being consulted over shutting schools. Meanwhile Labour councils in London boroughs have been prevented by the UK government in their call for early school closures amid a massive spike of Covid cases among young people across the capital.
Mike Picken reports on the latest crisis in education over Covid.
On 15December, the main teachers’ union in Scotland, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), announced the results of three consultative ballots on industrial action over safety concerns about Covid in schools. In Glasgow, 93% of teachers voted in favour, on a turnout of 63%. In West Dunbartonshire, 91% of teachers backed the move to a dispute, on a turnout of 75%. In Fife, 90% of teachers voted in favour, on a turnout of 53%. Further ballots are ongoing in three other areas.
The Glasgow local association of the EIS had decided to consult members last week after the SNP-led council refused to undertake a shift to online and remote learning and to close to most pupils several days early and return late over the Xmas and Hogmanay break.
Local EIS secretary, Susan Quinn, told the Glasgow Times that the union “had tried to work with the employer on ensuring safe workplaces” but wanted the City Council to extend Xmas holidays and outline their plans for remote and blended learning. According to the EIS, the Council had “refused on both accounts”.
EIS General Secretary, Larry Flanagan, told Glasgow Live:
“The Scottish Government and local authorities seem determined to keep schools physically open, at all costs, right up to Christmas.
“Scotland’s teachers are clear that this will present a very real risk to their health, their pupils’ health and the health of their families by increasing the risk of Covid-19 spreading through family festive gatherings.
The EIS union has a strong record of support for industrial action. In a result also announced on 15 December, FE members of the EIS have voted to declare a national dispute with Colleges Scotland over the introduction of lower paid ‘instructor’ posts into vocational teaching in the 26 colleges across the country. In recent years, EIS members in Scotland’s FE colleges have undertaken strike action over pay that resulted in a significant victory.
The Unison branch at Glasgow City Council, representing around 4,000 members working in schools in administrative or learning support roles, has also decided to consult school-based members on industrial action over Covid safety.
The Scottish Green Party Parliament group has backed the Glasgow EIS decision to consult members on industrial action and its co-leader and Glasgow MSP, Patrick Harvie, declared that the Scottish Greens “will stand in solidarity with them [the EIS] if that happens”. The left wing Scottish Green Party has 7 members on Glasgow City Council and 6 members of the Scottish Parliament, holding the balance of power in both bodies between the minority SNP leadership and the other UK unionist parties.
The Scottish Labour Party has previously been quick to raise concerns by the GMB union of its leader Richard Leonard against the SNP during the Covid pandemic, but has yet to declare support for the latest EIS and Unison concerns in Glasgow City, a council run by Labour for 40 years until it was ousted in elections in 2017.
The leadership of the UK Labour Party is supporting the position of both the UK Tory government and the SNP Scottish government of keeping schools open at all costs, even when some schools have two thirds of their students at home self-isolating or with COVID as well as large numbers of education staff off work. However, several local Labour councils in London, in Greenwich, Islington and Waltham Forest, had advised schools to move the majority of their teaching online for the rest of this term (and in Islington’s case at least the first week of next term).
Greenwich Council were issued with a legal threat – a ‘temporary continuity direction’ by England Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Greenwich Labour council leader, Danny Thorpe, defended the decision to close but formally backed down in the face of the cost of fighting this move in the courts. Faced with the threat of legal action, Islington council has also backed down.
Left wing Labour MP Richard Burgon tweeted that the hypocrisy of the Tories was exposed by the decision of Boris Johnson’s former school, Eton College, to close early last week and extend the Xmas break – “One rule for the rich. Another for everyone else”! The UK government’s actions in rolling back the powers of England’s local authorities during the pandemic, especially Labour ones, is part of a wider ‘Taking back control’ agenda that aims to concentrate power in Whitehall and Downing Street, against local and devolved government.
Kevin Courtney, Joint general secretary of the largest teachers’ union in England & Wales – the National Education Union (NEU) – has also publicly backed the London local authorities closing schools.
Meanwhile the Welsh Labour government has already closed all schools and college from yesterday to stem the rising tide of Covid transmission amongst young people and the risk posed to teachers and other school staff.