Boris Johnson’s announcement that schools will close until February half term is yet another U-turn from this shambolic Tory government – one which has been forced by the huge pressure from below by education workers.
Queen's University now joins Glasgow and Manchester in locking down halls of residence due to Covid-19 outbreaks. Within the first week of the university term, 30 students in Elms Village in south Belfast have tested positive for the virus. Fears of rising infection rates and the limitations of health and safety measures have been ignored by management in favour of forcing lecturers, support staff and students to participate in in-person classes without a uniform policy of sanitisation, mask-wearing and social distancing.
This week sees the reopening of schools in Northern Ireland. Ahead of that, Kevin Henry from the Socialist Party spoke to Susan Parlour, an English teacher and NI Vice-President of the National Education Union, about the approach being adopted by Stormont and the education authorities.
Despite an increase in the rate of infection and moves by Stormont to tighten some restrictions, Education Minister Peter Weir and the entire NI Executive are pushing forward in a pigheaded and dangerous manner to reopen our schools. They are ignoring warnings from education unions that this could be the “next care home crisis”.
The recent announcement by Peter Weir, the NI Education Minister, that all pupils are set to return to school in September full-time will bring mixed feelings for parents and teachers alike, who no doubt will have serious concerns over safety. In order to facilitate this, Weir also announced that previously planned social distancing guidelines would be relaxed.
Arlene Foster announced that by reducing physical distancing for children from 2m to 1m, all children would be able to attend full-time from September. This was branded “unrealistic and undeliverable” by Graham Gault, the NI Vice-President of the National Association of Head Teachers.
The announcement that the primary-secondary school transfer tests will proceed in the autumn is a source of anxiety for parents and pupils alike. School closures as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have meant that the same level of preparation and teaching resources will not be available to those pupils scheduled to sit the tests. This is obviously a serious cause for concern, as the selection of secondary education is a major life event for young people.
The raising of tuition fees would be a direct attack on access to higher education, especially for working-class students. It is part and parcel of a broader strategy of “marketisation” in education. Westminster is committed to de-regulating the higher education sector in favour of private companies, creating what it calls a 'level playing field' for profit-making companies. Stormont has not stood in the way and has facilitated this approach at every stage.
The trade union movement must connect itself to the aspirations and demands of this section of young and precarious workers. This means fighting on more than just the immediate “bread and butter” issues. Unite Hospitality in Belfast, which Socialist Party members are central to, has spearheaded the way forward