Teaching unions see members quit over Covid face mask stance

·6-min read
Children wearing facemasks during a lesson at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster in Yorkshire
Children wearing facemasks during a lesson at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster in Yorkshire

The country’s biggest teaching union is seeing some of its own members quit over its stance on face masks, it has emerged.

The National Education Union (NEU) has come under fire from teachers who say it is giving the profession a “bad name” by campaigning for children to continue wearing masks in the classroom.

One NEU rep complained that his union had failed to consult with members before writing to the Education Secretary this week urging him to keep masks in the classroom until June 21 at the earliest.

"When they say the union supports this, who are they speaking for? Who have they asked? I genuinely don’t know," he said.

The union rep, who is now seriously considering leaving the NEU, said he is “astounded” that the teaching profession has not done more to challenge the guidance on masks in the classroom, adding: “We should be speaking up for children”.

Earlier this week several unions – including the NEU, the National Association Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) together with Unite, Unison and GMB – wrote to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, claiming that face coverings are "essential" for Covid prevention in schools and should continue to be required until at least the penultimate week of June.

The Prime Minister announced in February that secondary pupils would need to wear face masks anywhere indoors where they could not socially distance, including in the classroom as well as in corridors when they returned to school on March 8.

At the time he said it was a temporary measure and would be reviewed by Easter but despite vocal opposition to the policy - including from over 30 Tory MPs - it was then extended until May 17 at the earliest.

Mr Williamson is facing two legal challenges over the guidance on face masks in the classroom. The first, from the National Deaf Children's Society, argued that the guidance on face masks was "unlawful, irrational and inconsistent" with his legal duties.

The second, from UsForThem, said there was "no credible scientific evidence" to support the policy, which raises "serious questions of children's health" as well as being "deleterious to their education".

The parents' campaign group said they have received multiple reports of children suffering from headaches, nausea, fatigue, irritability and facial rashes as a result of wearing masks during the school day.

Union members have told The Telegraph about how they have started to break ranks over the issue. One NEU member, who intends to resign this week, said: "They are giving teachers a bad name. People are dropping out of the union left right and centre."

Another teacher and former union rep told how she recently quit NASUWT after 14 years of membership in protest at their stance on face masks which left her feeling “ignored, unsupported and betrayed”.

“I wrote to the union about how I felt unrepresented and had not been balloted about this intervention,” she said. “The union response was dismissive of me, stating that they were protecting the majority of members and that others wanted the masks in schools.”

John Roberts, chief executive of Edapt, which was set up in 2012 to provide legal and employment support for teachers as an apolitical alternative to unions, said that his membership has surged by 35 per cent in the past year.

"We see spikes in subscriptions every time the unions take a hard line on issues,” he said. “We have seen this with abolishing GCSEs, banning exclusions or things like face masks.”

Mr Roberts said it is clear that there are some teachers who do not agree with particular positions taken by unions and therefore look for an alternative organisation to join, adding: “This is something we have seen time and time again throughout the pandemic.”

"We saw spikes of a similar nature during times of industrial action - both nationally and at a local level over the past nine years. But the growth that we have seen over the last 12 months have been significant.”

A teacher from Kent said she has recently quit the NEU over its stance on masks - after over a decade of union membership - to join Edapt.

“I don’t know any teachers who want to wear a mask all day and I certainly don’t know any teachers who want children to wear them,” she said.

“I didn’t feel like they were speaking for me. Face masks in the classroom are absolute madness and disproportionate to the risk. They make it hard to know who needs support academically. How can you tell if a child is upset if you can only see their eyes?”

Another private school teacher added that unions “absolutely” do not represent the views of all school staff. “I am not sure what their agenda is,” he said. “I am not sure why they are pushing for face masks so hard - they are putting adult fear ahead of education."

An NEU spokesman said that their stance of masks is “entirely reasonable and responsible” adding that it is shared by other unions.

“We have advocated maintaining the wearing of masks to suppress the transmission of the virus in schools to support the continuing decline of infection rates in the country and thereby to prevent more self isolation,” they said.

“Schools are doing a very good job of keeping pupils and staff safe with the containment measures they are adopting – of which mask wearing is a part. We will be very pleased when these measures are no longer needed – but it’s important to see what effect the next opening up on May 17 has before removing this measure.”

Sage 'not consulted' over policy to introduce face masks in lessons

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) was not consulted over the policy to introduce masks in lessons, it has emerged.

Ministers did not seek the group’s views before announcing that all secondary pupils should wear face masks in the classroom, according to one of the Government's leading scientific advisors.

The policy - which affects 3.4 million children in England - has since come under fire and is subject to two separate legal challenges.

Dr Gavin Morgan, an expert in education psychology at University College London who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, known as SPI-B, said that Sage should have been asked to look at the issue before it became policy.

“From a psychological point of view, I don’t think [face masks in the classroom] are a good thing,” he said.

“Masks are negative, they hide emotions and feelings and they are an impediment to communication.

“We want to encourage children to communicate, to share ideas, to problem solve - and that is all clearly impeded by masks”.

Dr Morgan said he contributed to one Sage paper last summer which warned of the “emotional cost” masks posed to school children.

The paper also raised concerns about the impact masks would have on children’s ability to interact and play with one another.

But the Government’s scientific advisors were not asked to look again at the issue of face masks in the classroom ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement in February that this would become a national policy.

“We wrote a paper on it a year ago but we haven’t been asked to reconsider that or to change our advice since then,” Dr Morgan said.

“I think we should have been consulted but I am not surprised that we weren’t. I can see that the teaching unions are worried about their health. The Government is trying to please everybody”.

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