Teaching unions have 'got it wrong' on school reopening, former Labour minister says

Camilla Turner
Alan Johnson was secretary of state for education and skills in the mid-2000s under Tony Blair

Teaching unions have “got it wrong” on school reopening, a former Labour minister has said, as he accused them of failing to put children at the heart of their plans.

Alan Johnson, who was secretary of state for education and skills in the mid-2000s under Tony Blair, said that teacher unions have been “dancing a war dance” while having a “tin ear” for public opinion.

He told The Telegraph’s new podcast Planet Normal that the Government was "absolutely right" to push for a phased return of pupils from June 1.

“I can understand the unions questioning that and asking for equipment and so on," Mr Johnson said. "But to put teachers and even parents at the heart of this issue, when children should be at the heart of it, seemed to me to be a big mistake.”

The Prime Minister has asked schools to prepare to open on Monday for pupils in Reception, Year One and Year Six, with the “ambition” that all primary age pupils will be able to return by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, secondary schools have been asked to welcome back pupils in Year 10 and Year 12, who are mid-way through their GCSEs and A-levels, from June 15 but only quarter of each year group is allowed back on any one day.

In a sign that political momentum is starting to swing away from the teaching unions, polling by the National Association of Head Teachers last night found nine out of 10 members planned to open their schools. About three in four of the 2,000 head teachers surveyed said they would ignore government guidelines about which children should return, The Times reported.

But the Prime Minister's announcement has been met with staunch opposition from teacher unions and dozens of local councils who said it is not safe to reopen next month.

The UK’s biggest teacher union has told its members to cite employment laws and refuse to go to work next week by saying that entering the workplace would pose a "serious and imminent" threat to their health.

Mr Johnson said that Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is right not to have backed the teaching unions’ stance on reopening schools. "The teachers got it wrong. Sometimes trade union leaders have a tin ear for what the public thinks,” he said.

"I have the greatest respect for the union leaders involved…but they got this wrong and they read it wrong.  "Having danced their war dance, and had their meeting with the Secretary of State, they now need to find an elegant way to say they’re reassured".

Mr Johnson, who served for two decades as the Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle and held a various cabinet positions under the Blair and Brown administrations, is the latest Labour grandee to intervene in the row over schools reopening.

His comments echoed those of Lord Blunkett, who earlier this month accused of teachers “working against the interests of children” by refusing to go back to school.

Lord Blunkett, who was secretary of state for education and employment from 1997 to 2001, said he is “deeply critical” of unions which are opposing plans to reopen schools next month.

Lord Adonis, a former Labour schools minister, has also said that the unions made a "serious misjudgment" and were out of sync with public opinion. 

Unions continued to dig their heels in over schools reopening. Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) said that teachers should refuse to go to work if their school has failed to pass their safety checklist.  

The NEU checklist asks members to seek assurance from their school on over 100 issues, including whether library books will be regularly sanitised and whether a scheme will be in place to monitor whether children touch their faces.

"If the checklist isn’t there, the general advice to all working people is that if they do not have to work in an unsafe environment, if they have a reasonable belief that there is a danger to their health, there are laws to protect them,” he told The Telegraph.

He cited Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 which states that workers are prevented from detriment or dismissal if they reasonably believe that entering their workplace will put them in "serious and imminent" danger.

Dr Mary Bousted, the NEU’s other joint general secretary, has urged headteachers to “ignore” the Prime Minister’s instruction for schools to reopen, claiming that schools are being used as a “distraction” from Dominic Cummings.

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