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Back to the Future

How the current hysteria about trade unions is a familiar distorted narrative.

I want to take us back to the 1980s and draw the harrowing similarities between the Coalminers Strikes and the current state of affairs surrounding reopening schools. Although it’s difficult to compare different epochs, the contempt towards unions is still the same. This goes beyond a handful of ‘celebrity’ parents and Journalists dragging teachers over hot coals, this is a historical and sustained ideological attack on unions and workers’ rights. A movement that gain notoriety in the Thatcherite years and a legacy that lives with us. The state ability to construct a distorted narrative of key social events cannot be downplayed.

Dr. Emmett Brown: You’ve got to come back with me!

Marty McFly: Where?

Dr. Emmett Brown: Back to the future!

The plight of the Miners during the 1980s, albeit very different, still draws striking similarities with the narratives of union bashing that have been regurgitated during the reopening of schools debate.

Between 1984-85, Everton were crowned First Division Champions, Polka Dot was the latest fashion trend, Michael Jordan made his professional debut, Prince had released Purple Rain and Doc Brown and Marty McFly were tampering with the physics of time travel. During this period, Arthur Scargill was leading the National Union of Mineworkers against the Margaret Thatcher backed National Coal Board. Trade Unions became the enemy of the state and the debilitating puncture in the wheel of socio-economic progress. The Iron Lady once famously said “I can’t help to spit nails when just thinking about Trade Unions”. Clearly the abhorrence towards Unions perpetuated some of the most iconic scenes of Thatcher’s tenure of collective action and unrest. However, this vision of ‘union bashing’ and narrative that unions holding back progress has been a salient theme in the reckless, hasty and unsafe push to reopen schools amidst a global pandemic. Teaching unions have yet to call for Scargill-esque direct action and many schools remain very poorly unionised. Yet without proper safety procedures and no definite evidence that students could spread COVID19, these are truly extraordinary times.

Teachers are itching to get back into the swing of things. Remote learning, albeit equally as arduous in terms of workload, it fails to capture the social essence of teaching. The interactions and micro-interactions, the challenge and energy of the classroom and the sheer joy we get from working with young people. The COVID19 global pandemic has halted many facets of society but the show must go on for teachers. It is pure misinformation by various tabloids and prominent public figures that teachers are unwillingness to ‘get things moving’ or that against the reopening of schools. We are against the unsafe reopening of schools. Without a beret, militia, copy of the Communist Manifesto to hand or any sort of revolutionary defiance, at the very core, teachers want to return to work when it is safe to do so. This is because we have a duty of care to our students and because we fear for our own lives. Is it ‘militant’, ‘uncooperative’, ‘difficult’ or ‘overly sensitive of us to want, rigorous risk assessment during a global pandemic? A pandemic that has taken the lives of 75 people working in education. We want to return under a ray of certainty and cloud of doubt that we could save lives and protect the NHS.

Is there a more iconic duo? What lessons, themes and prevailing narratives can we see during the current pandemic?

The narrative of teachers being unwilling to partake in the reopening of schools has been built on five misinformed points. Although this is not an exclusive list, it begins a conversation that matters at a time where it appears the safety and integrity of Educators has been rendered invisible. Ironically also, by those who have never inhabited the intellectual world of a classroom.

  1. You’re on holiday – the notion of a holiday usually evokes some form of relaxation, light entertainment and escapism from the stresses and strains of daily life. The dissonance this creates between teachers and non-teachers is very powerful. The past nine weeks or so have been far from a long walk on the beach! Teachers up and down the country have seen their workload increase, working patterns and habits change, skills refined and attaining a work-life balance has become more difficult. In many sectors, once you arrive home, work is left at the door. For teachers, working from home has meant a greater investment at home in their professional roles. Working remotely as a teacher does not mean internal pressures from schools in terms of data, planning, assessment, meetings and administrative activities come to a halt. Despite what the press says, I have yet to spend a single day away from work. Has your holiday ever meant you spend more time thinking, worrying and caring for other people’s children more than your own? That is a stark reality for many teachers during this pandemic.

  2. You must put the students first – the guilt trip being used by the policymakers and the media. 99.9% of teachers place the progress of their students at the very heart of their role. This ‘refusal’ to return to work narrative is based on the fact we want to put our students first. There’s still inconclusive evidence around the impacts of COVID19 on young people and even if they are immune, adults aren’t. Students are resilient but they are not invincible, and neither are their families who will have to take their children to school. Teachers aren’t millionaires, so why do people become teachers? Why do teachers complete more unpaid overtime than any other profession? Why do they put up with constant criticism from the general public, media and politicians? It is banal but yet beautiful, we do it for the students. Our commitment to providing a world class education in not such a world class context cannot be matched. The irony when teachers are asked to put students first. Did MPs put the children first when they unleashed a savage reign of austerity and cuts to school budgets? We need to put the students first? No, Policymakers and the media need to put students first by ending this farrago of abuse and spite towards teachers.

  3. Care homes are at risk, not schools – the true number of care home deaths in care homes is uncertain but given that schools have been relatively uninhabited for the past 9 weeks, this has certainly stemmed the number of cases in schools. Research on young people getting Coronavirus suggests there is a correlation between formative years and their ability to fight the virus. However, these are extraordinary times and panic is growing over the ‘Kawasaki disease’. It’s alleged over 100 children have been tested positive for this illness which could be a variation of COVID19. Fevers, rashes and swelling are key symptoms which demonstrates the real dangers of hastily trying to bring the economy back to par. If adults are susceptible to COVID19 and children may develop symptoms of the Kawasaki disease, who on earth is making the decision to bring us back into mass circulation by reopening schools? We have no definite data about schools because, unlike care homes, action was taken early to ensure they closed to protect us. These are uncertain times, of course we are disgruntled and petrified of what may happen. Although schools may not be a high-risk, how do we know for certain? International comparisons have been shot down by policymakers and with only a handful of weeks left in the academic year, do we take the risk? Isn’t all life precious? Shouldn’t we be protecting the NHS? There’s no easy answer here but moving recklessly with hundreds dying everyday is not the answer. I will quote the most recent DofE framework, “There is no evidence to suggest that children transmit the virus any more than adults. Some studies suggest younger children may transmit less, but this evidence is mixed and provides a low degree of confidence at best”. If there’s a low degree of confidence, why does the life of a teacher have to be left in the hands of probability?

  4. Unions are holding back economic recovery – this narrative and paradigm was born during the Thatcher & Reagan years. Unionisation is nowhere near as strong and forceful as it was in previous decades, with teaching unions now being seen as personal rather than political advisory bodies. What do unions want? Gone are the days of military tactics and clenched fist salutes, unions nowadays are mediatory forces. The NEU and NASUWT have called for risk assessments, PPE for teachers and a careful consideration for the safety of students and staff. Neither union has called for collective action, strikes, public stand offs or violence. Rather tellingly, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson did not attend today’s meeting with the experts and the unions because he doesn’t want to politicise the opening of schools. Wow! Unions have the contractual and moral obligation to protect their members, are their demands unrealistic? With over 30,000 deaths in the UK, isn’t it the duty of unions to defend the rights of teachers? In this case, it appears, teachers are being given a choice between life and death. This is appalling and union bashing must be placed in its historical context. They are no cesspits for Socialism, held together by quasi-Marxist propaganda, they genuinely want teachers back in the classroom doing what they do best. But only when it is safe to do so.

  5. We are listening to the science – Watching BBC Question Time last night, Professor Devi Lalita Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health said that there was a fear COVID19 cases could increase. She eloquently stated that bringing an end to lockdown early without the appropriate infrastructure to adequately detect and trace the virus was pointless. Although this is one opinion, it is a well-informed opinion and not a lavishly titled tabloid judgement. The science is available and is clearly indicating that more planning, research and though needs to be in place before any sort of normality ensues. Thinking with an economic rationale and hastily making decisions with no consideration of their impacts could lead to the loss of more lives. Not only is there large-scale misinformation, there’s also large-scale contempt of scientific evidence. We are still seeing hundreds die every day and even Drs are being told to watch their tone by politicians. Truly extraordinary. When the DofE’s Chief Scientific Adviser admitted he had not seen reopening guidelines, the sense of despair gripped hold of the teaching profession. It is a simple statement of intent, are we going to listen to the science or the millionaire celebrity, who clearly has astronomical insight into both the pedagogical and medical fields, respectively. We are told to listen to the science but any conclusive scientific evidence about COVID19 disappearing when schools reopen, well that doesn’t exist. Is social distancing even remotely possible? Is the ‘catch it, kill it, bin it’ just another ‘stay alert’?

In Summary

We have fired up the DeLorean and headed back to the 80s where unions were depicted as the enemy to socio-economic progress. Three decades later, Doc Brown and Marty McFly are back in town as the narrative of union bashing has resurfaced on the same pretence of its foundations. The demonisation and dehumanisation of teachers echoes the experience of the Miners in 80s. The same disdain, distrust and dislike of unions exists across the media and politics but it’s now the teachers who are the enemy within.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, teachers were given homage and respect but, society often through the moving lenses of the media, can develop selective amnesia. When did it become ‘inconsiderate’ or ‘uncooperative’ to want to go to work without the fear of contracting a deadly virus? Is it ‘unreasonable’ to want to go to work and return home safely to our loved ones? Is it simply a progress issue as politicians and the tabloids say or are parents struggling to keep their children engaged? It remains empirically unproven that schools are safe to reopen and that children are totally immune from COVID19. When celebrities and people with enormous platforms are on the streets clapping for our NHS heroes, they are destroying and demoralising those with superpowers in the classrooms. And, if heroes don’t wear capes, they wear PPE, where can teachers get theirs from?

I urge us to learn from history and to defend our profession as not everyone can be a teacher. Also, I wholeheartedly plead with any teacher out there to join a union. It is so important.

Thank you for reading,

A massive thank you to Shirley Beller. A fantastic Lecturer and friend. You guided my political awareness so well during my undergrad. I miss our chats about the 80s.

Shuaib Khan


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