Divide and rule rumours aren’t the real picture

We should be wary of divide and rule tactics in the newspapers and on social media.

By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice

Rumours and speculation have abounded on social media and in right-wing newspapers with an anti-union and pro-government agenda about hardline unions warring with politicians, teachers not setting work for students, and unions ‘frustrating’ the wishes of teachers and politicians to prevent a wider opening of schools in England from June.

However, we should be wary of these divide and rule tactics. Many of these politically motivated stories – and that is an appropriate description, given the fictional nature of some of them – have their origins in hearsay, ill-informed opinion and briefings from anonymous “sources at Westminster”.

The discussions between unions and government are not about petty “squabbling”, or argument for argument’s sake, but about finding the best possible, and safest, solution for the sake of children, families and staff.  

All the unions agree that wider opening of schools should take place – but only when it is safe to do so.

We are encouraged by the movement of other unions towards a proactive position where members engage in practical preparedness for a wider opening in England, as this is what Voice has always advocated. Members’ concerns for their health and safety, and that of the children and pupils, can only be addressed by participating in this process.

Yesterday’s acknowledgement by a government minister of a local approach to wider opening of schools seems to be part of a softening of the approach by the Government to the uniform 1 June date across the country, although they have said it was always a target or ‘earliest’ date. The media, of course, always take such targets to mean something is set in stone.

Subject to the Government’s five tests being met, and robust risk assessments being undertaken in all settings, Voice remains of the position that schools are in the best position to determine if they have everything necessary to be safe and to decide when it is appropriate to fully reopen.

Discussions continue, and l have written again to the Education Secretary (pdf), calling for the scientific evidence on which decisions have been made to be published in full.

Reasoned negotiation and working together with all partners in education – rather than rhetoric and conflict, or a media-staged slanging match – have always been at the heart of Voice’s values, and the gradual moving towards a consensus justifies that approach.

Update following Prime Minister's briefing on24 May 2020

Retweet from @VoiceGenSec:

On early years guidance:

Further information

Media speculation about schools ‘reopening’ premature, unrealistic and causing anxiety (updated 7 May)



I find your introduction inaccurate and surprising from Voice. There was indeed 'political motivation' - from the union formerly known as the NUTters and Labour City Mayor's such as Liverpool's. Unions who actually listened to Prof Whitty said they were satisfied that it was safe to return. Indeed, since then both Lord Blunkett and Alan Johnson (both former Labour Sec of State for Education) have said that most unions got it wrong. We should be part of the solution and cheered on by the Country. Not opposing anything from Whitehall simply because most unions are left wing. REmember many of us chose Voice precisely because we didn't want to hear idiotic rants from union leaders who claimed to speak for those of us who want to work and have been doing so safely in hubs for the past 2 months. Let's not pretend we can't manage what the Danes and French have done.

As schools and nurseries across all four nations prepare for wider opening, it is disturbing that education unions have been the focus for some very bad and distracting press. The impression which has prevailed across news and social media is of unions in England warring with politicians about the wider opening of schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. National negotiations are always professional and well ordered with politicians, officials and between unions, including where it is not possible to reach agreement.

There is no doubt that all the education unions fully understand the impact the interruption to education and childcare caused by the pandemic is having on children and pupils. Unions have no desire to prevent the wider opening of schools and nurseries, but insist that it should happen only when it is safe to do so. While there is agreement on the safe opening, unions do rightly differ in how they choose to best represent their members' interests, and it is this which has been used by the press to create controversy which distracts from the real issues and creates or exacerbates division.

The interests of Voice members are best represented through cogent and pragmatic negotiations with politicians and officials in all four nations. This is the way to find solutions and the position what we proudly continue to hold on behalf of you, and the children and pupils and education you care so passionately about.

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