The role of trade unions in schools reopening following lockdown
The history of the trade union movement evidences the impact unions have had on protecting the health, safety and welfare of staff.
Whilst Covid-19 has created an unprecedented situation for public health and the economy, schools in particular have been required, almost overnight, to find practical work around solutions to ensure continuing education provision for our nation's children.
There are a multitude of stories highlighting the good work of schools, and of staff rising to the challenges of this health emergency, and this continues to have the support of the trade unions.
However, throughout unions have also been concerned to do everything they can to uphold the rights of staff, guarantee their financial position and safeguard health, safety and welfare (including mental health). This includes the work of unions in avoiding redundancy, protecting pay including sick pay for those self-isolating, and supporting employees not only in relation to disciplinary (and capability) procedures and grievances but also supporting those affected by fatalities as a result of the virus. Unions have also been instrumental in providing staff and schools with information, advice and guidance, helping to avoid the effects of misinformation, and challenging the government on its response to the virus.
Reopening is only one part of the recent challenges faced by schools. Reopening comes at a time when there are still so many unknowns about the virus, including the continuing risk (not just due to personal health conditions but also, as evidence grows, the racial and socio-economic disparities) and lack of a vaccine (with little clarity as to when one may become available).
Schools are well aware of their legal duties, including that staff have the right to withdraw from and refuse to return to a workplace that is unsafe. As part of their reopening assessments schools know that they need, and want, to be careful to avoid making assumptions that could expose them to discrimination claims, such as whether a member of staff is ready or able to return, or making arrangements which unjustifiably and detrimentally affect some groups, such as those with caring responsibilities or who may be more susceptible to the virus or its effects.
Some guidance appears to suggest that once a school has signed off on its risk assessment then there is nothing to stop it reopening. We can all tick a box. However schools exist in the real world and that involves multiple and often complex relationships.
One of a school's key relationships is with its staff and that will include any trade union representing staff. Relationships are built upon mutual respect. That is not created automatically; it needs to be worked on. But like any relationship it can be weakened, perhaps destroyed, through a simple lack of thought.
A key ingredient in building and maintaining that relationship is good communication, including timely forethought. This is not a last minute scrabble to meet minimum statutory requirements around consultation. However, this does not mean that a school and union must agree on everything. Mutual respect allows for professional disagreement but it is important to remember that notwithstanding the statutory duty of schools to ensure the health, safety and welfare of staff the history of the trade union movement evidences the impact unions have had in this area.
If there is a concern about the quality of your relationship then that demands time and attention to find a way to make improvements. That includes supporting and investing in the development of your staff representatives so that they can better fulfil their role, just as you will support and develop other teaching and non-teaching staff in their roles.
No school is alone in seeking a solution to respond to the present crisis and no school should seek to respond alone.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Chris Billington or any other member of the Education team on 0113 244 6100.
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The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors