Britain’s biggest teaching union is to dramatically step up its campaign to close Covid-hit schools with a new drive to raise safety concerns that could spark strike action, HuffPost UK can reveal.
The National Education Union (NEU) will launch a new “Escalation App” for its nearly half a million members, with a step-by-step guide to getting individual schools to shut their doors over safety fears.
In a move that has led to clashes with head teachers and Labour leader Keir Starmer, the NEU has come out strongly in favour of closing schools during the four-week second national lockdown that is due to start on Thursday.
Several Labour backbenchers and metro Mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have backed the union in defiance of their leader and now the union is set to go further to force closures that it says are backed by government scientists and other experts.
The new app helps the union’s teachers and school support staff to go through a checklist, including whether they have seen a positive case of Covid and which year group “bubble” of pupils has been affected.
App users are then directed to a five-step “escalation” process, ranging from discussing the Covid cases collectively with fellow members to meeting with their head teacher and then requesting “further support” from the union centrally.
Crucially, if union members in a school feel their safety concerns are not being adequately addressed, they could agree to withdraw labour under employment laws or request a ballot for strike action in their local branch.
Both Boris Johnson and education secretary Gavin Williamson have insisted that closing schools or universities is not part of the new national lockdown, and would only be used as a “last resort”.
But the NEU, which has seen a huge surge in membership since the beginning of the year, this weekend launched a new #PutSchoolsInTheLockdown campaign, with 150,000 teachers and support staff signing its petition for closures.
University College London professor Andrew Hayward, who sits on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said on Monday that it was clear that there was “substantial transmission” within secondary schools.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s clear that there is substantial transmission within secondary schools. And we are of course needing to prioritise education and we know that children who are infected in schools are very unlikely to have severe consequences.
“But I think one of the consequences of not closing secondary schools would be that we may need to be in lockdown for longer than we might otherwise have to be.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, told HuffPost UK: “For as long as schools and colleges remain open, they have to be as safe a working and learning environment as possible. Otherwise, put simply, they will contribute to the spread of Covid-19.
“Throughout 2020 our members and reps have worked with school and college leaders during this difficult time, and the proportion of settings which fully opened in September is a testament to that.
“But it is also the case that standards can slip, and new issues emerge. Our new app allows reps to keep a real-time record of concerns and the progress of efforts to tackle them. Most problems can be resolved at school/college level, but when they are not, the NEU Escalation App will enable members to quickly seek outside help.”
Courtney said that the union’s call for closures was widely shared, adding that the fifty-fold increase in infections in secondary schools alone since September showed they were “an engine for virus transmission.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday that schools must stay open.
“The harm caused to children by not being in school is huge,” he said. “But we have got to manage the risk.
“What I said to the prime minister in September was what you should do is elevate if you like children and staff and teachers to the status of NHS staff and that means having mass targeted testing at schools on a weekly basis.”
Official figures show that coronavirus cases in the secondary school age group in England increased 50 times between 1 September and 23 October, from 40 to 2,010 – despite schools operating a system of “bubbles” for classes or year groups.
No.10 insisted that the risk of death from Covid among school age children was “exceptionally small”, but said it would keep under review the idea of England following Scotland in asking older pupils to wear masks in school.
Earlier this summer the union used a similar app to share details of their local school’s preparedness, a move that effectively forced the PM to abandon his plan to allow all primary pupils to get classroom time before the holidays.
At the time, the union advised staff that they could refuse to go back to work by citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which states workers are protected from the sack if they reasonably believe that entering their workplace will put them in “serious and imminent” danger.
But Jayne Phillips, of the NEU’s employment rights unit, said in August that industrial action was another alternative for local branches and regions.
The union has handed in a petition signed by more than 60,000 people calling for fair grading of GSCEs and A-levels next year.
The NEU is also calling for rotas to be introduced in secondary schools and sixth form colleges at the end of the lockdown period.
Steve Chalke, who runs the Oasis academy chain of schools, said on Monday that he believed a one or two week closure of schools could help stem the spread of the virus.
Dr Susan Hopkins, deputy director of Public Health England (PHE), said the majority of coronavirus infection in children was related to “infection in their households”.