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Johnson needs UK teachers. His chief aide likes fighting them

Robert Hutton and Kitty Donaldson, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

LONDON -- Boris Johnson's chief adviser has spent a decade waging war on Britain's teaching unions. Now he needs their help.

The prime minister wants England's schools to partially reopen from June 1 as he eases the coronavirus lockdown, but teachers say their concerns over safety and practicalities should be addressed first.

While other parts of the government's virus response have seen close engagement with labor unions, the tone has been more confrontational on schools as ministers and their supporters in the media attack teachers for their stance.

Dominic Cummings, Johnson's most senior adviser, is now most famous as the man who ran the campaign for Brexit, but before that he was one of Michael Gove's chief aides at the Department for Education.

There, the two men made it their mission to break up what they said was a cozy relationship between teachers and officials that made it difficult to reform schools. Teachers were attacked as "militant" and accused of being part of a "blob." Critics of education policy were harangued on social media by an official Conservative account.

Whether the pair were successful in reforming education is hotly contested. That they upset people isn't. Gove was moved from the department ahead of the 2015 election as then-prime minister David Cameron tried to mollify angry teachers and parents.


Under Johnson's plan for lifting the lockdown, primary schools, which take children up to the age of 11, would partially reopen, with just the oldest and youngest children. To enable some level of social distancing, classes would also be cut to half the usual size. Secondary schools have been asked to provide face-to-face contact for children who have major exams scheduled next year.

Schools are wrestling with how to meet the requirements. Splitting classes across different rooms will need more teachers, while children who aren't allowed back will still need to be taught remotely. And there are questions over protecting staff who are vulnerable to coronavirus, and what to do about outbreaks.

With just more than a week to go, it was still unclear Friday how many schools would reopen. They haven't yet formally been asked to -- only to prepare for the possibility -- and the Department for Education said it has no estimate of how many would open. The Guardian newspaper named eight local authorities whose schools aren't immediately planning to.

Lawrence Waterman, chief executive of the British Safety Council, which campaigns for safer workplaces, said the government was wrong to choose an "arbitrary" target.


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