Manchester's teachers and Co-op Academies Trust clash over school safety

Workers at Co-op Academy Manchester write to headteacher and the Co-op Academies Trust calling for school closures and better working conditions, while Andy Burnham lends support for partial closures under a “tier system” during the winter.

Teachers and support staff members of the National Education Union (NEU) at Co-op Academy Manchester have clashed over school safety and working conditions during Covid-19.

On 11 November, workers in the school penned a letter to their headteacher and the Co-op Academies Trust CEO, Chris Tomlinson, making a series of demands relating to working conditions and requesting a meeting with headteachers and the Trust to discuss these demands.

Five more co-op academies across the north of England last week submitted similar letters to headteachers and Mr Tomlinson relating to working conditions.

The letter, seen by The Meteor, reads: “Covid infection rates are now surging everywhere, particularly in the North of England”.

“The government’s planned new circuit breaker or temporary lockdown would have been shorter and more effective if it had been implemented as many argued earlier and around the half term holiday.

“But the case for action is clear. The government is not including schools in the temporary lockdown. This seems to us to be irresponsible.

“We all want schools open as much as possible, but as Independent Sage [a shadow version of the government’s advisory body for emergencies] argues, a temporary lockdown without schools could take at least nine weeks to bring infection rates down enough, whereas with schools that time they say would fall to three weeks.

“There is much that has gone well in schools since September, but there have been great challenges for staff at all levels and this is having an impact on capacity, well-being and health.

“Therefore, we are asking you to protect our communities, students and staff from the virus, and to ensure the best possible education provision for our students.”

The demands made in the letter include schools being temporarily closed as part of the second national lockdown; allowing ‘Clinically Extremely Vulnerable’ (CEV) staff to work from home; smaller class sizes; the names of students testing positive to be shared with staff; pausing book scrutinies, learning walks, lesson observations, mock exams, and twilight revision classes; and exploring the option of regular on-site testing to stop asymptomatic spread of the disease.

The demands had been approved by 65 of 83 (78%) National Education Union members in the Co-op Academy Manchester at a meeting held prior to the letters being submitted.

The clash comes after the Manchester Evening News reported that 118 schools in Manchester had confirmed Covid cases since the beginning of the half term break, including three Co-op Academies.

Evidence presented by the government’s scientific advisers last week also showed the number of school-age children with coronavirus had risen “significantly” in the second wave compared with the first and that children are now more likely than adults to be the person bringing a Covid infection into a household. While families with children are at no higher risk of severe illness, it means the disease can spread more quickly throughout the wider populace.

James* is a support staff worker at the Co-op Academy Manchester, who agreed to speak to The Meteor on condition of anonymity. James said working conditions were “unsafe” and that workload had increased “drastically”.

“We have the usual responsibilities like lesson drop-ins and marking books, which put pressure on us because they determine your performance and pay. This normally would not be bad but there is additional workload with teachers going off sick with Covid-19 and us having to cover their lessons.”

James called for a system of “remote learning” during national lockdown, where schools would be closed except for the children of key workers and children deemed vulnerable, and teachers could respond remotely to the rest of their students working from home. 

“That’s what we did last time when schools shut down during the first lockdown, that is the way forward for now.”

Another teacher, Lucy*, told The Meteor a long term plan was needed to reduce case rates in school. “A ‘rota’ system with all staff in school and half the students in at a time would halve class sizes to 15. This would allow teachers and support staff to be able to social distance in the same way as other workplaces across the country”.

In his official response, Chris Tomlinson, Co-op Academies Trust CEO, insisted schools remain open. 

“O​ur overarching priority and main focus as a Trust this term is to get as many students in school as possible every day to address the learning gap, which is significant and will continue to grow if there is another significant period of absence. We also know that it can really affect the mental health of students when they have to self-isolate. Any further school closures or the adoption of rotas would mean in the end the vulnerable students would be most affected.

Regarding workload, Mr Tomlinson said the Trust was “fully aware that ‘business is not as usual’” and that it had been “regularly discussing workload capacity and colleague wellbeing with our headteachers”. However, Mr Tomlinson said, “that does not mean that all other activities can stop completely”, like lesson observations.

In response to demands to reduce crowding, Mr Tomlinson said the Trust would continue “to work closely with Public Health England and follow the national Department for Education guidance”. 

Mr Tomlinson affirmed the Trust’s support for two of the six demands; that all Clinically Extremely Vulnerable colleagues stay at home for the duration of the lockdown and that the Trust would support the roll-out of “rapid testing” if available to schools.

Asked whether he supported the teachers’ demands at a press conference held yesterday, Metro Mayor Andy Burnham said that he thought “any schools facing substantial disruption over the winter” due to Covid-19 should be able “to move to reduced attendance levels.”

Mr Burnham said this would be possible if the Department for Education implemented a “tier system”, where it could “encourage schools struggling to manage with Covid-19 “to operate in a reduced way”.

“It is our understanding the tier system has not yet been fully activated by the Department for Education”, Mr Burnham said. “So I think rather than blanket closures, I think the solution to what the staff are calling for at the academies is to see whether or not the Department for Education can activate that tier system.”

The Co-op Academies Trust has been contacted for comment.

By Alex King

*names have been changed by The Meteor

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  • Alex King

    Alex is a reporter at Planning Magazine. Prior to working there he was a freelance journalist specialising in climate, employment and politics. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Politico, Novara Media, Tribune Magazine, The Bristol Cable, The Mill and Red Pepper. He also set up and co-manages Green New Deal Media, an independent media outlet based in Greater Manchester devoted to addressing climate breakdown.

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