To support lockdown in Northern Ireland, the UK government introduced no new Covid-related unemployment benefits, but they did introduce an employee wage subsidy scheme, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). Later, a self-employment wage replacement scheme called Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) was introduced.

The take up of CJRS is estimated at approximately 170,000 and it is estimated that just over 50,000 self-employed people in Northern Ireland are claiming SEISS. When you add this figure to the numbers of people claiming ordinary unemployment benefits, the total increase in April looks to be close to 400%!

The effects of lockdown on the economy have been radical and it appears likely that both CJRS and SEISS will be gradually eased out, from August as the active economy resumes.  Amongst the biggest barriers to full “re-booting” of work – the Coronavirus aside - appears to be childcare.

Childcare: Around 40% of workers in Northern Ireland have dependent children. High proportions of such workers also work in households where all adults in the household work.  Without Government intervention there is a risk that a lack of access to childcare will become a barrier to labour market participation with female workers likely to be disproportionately negatively impacted in this regard given their dominant responsibility for care needs within the home.

Most families with dependent children rely on their wider family circle to assist with childcare. Grandparents often fulfil this role but have been constrained from doing so under lockdown. This shows that the issue of a lack of access to childcare is unlikely to be solved through a reopening of childcare facilities alone.

Flexible working

As workplaces gradually re-open after coronavirus lockdown, more employers are looking at new ways of working. New Zealand's PM Jacinda Ardern, one of the few world leaders emerging from the Covid crisis with an enhanced reputation, has suggested a four-day working week, partly to boost tourism in that country.

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told staff it was "aggressively opening up remote hiring" in July. He expects half of its workforce to do their jobs outside Facebook's offices over the next five to 10 years. It follows moves by other tech firms in Silicon Valley, including Twitter, which said employees can work from home "forever" if they wish.

The BBC has reported a “step change” in how big companies, notably in technology and finance are extending flexible work arrangements over a longer term:

  • Amazon – are giving employees the option to work from home until at least October.
  • Barclays – have 70,000 staff currently working from home, the bank’s boss, Jes Staley, noting that a big city office "may be a thing of the past".
  • Facebook – have extended work from home until end of 2020, as part of a long-term shift to more remote working
  • Google - has extended working from home until the end of the year.
  • Mastercard - says the majority of its employees can work from home until they "are ready" to return. Also looking to consolidate global offices.
  • Microsoft – has extended working from home until October for most employees.
  • Royal Bank of Scotland – have facilitated staff to work from home until at least end of September.
  • Spotify - its workforce of more than 4,000 can work from home for the rest of the year.
  • Twitter - has offered staff the option of working from home permanently, according to chief executive Jack Dorsey.
  • WPP - the world's biggest advertising agency says returning to office will be voluntary and flexible.

So, what about schools and colleges? Are they adding their weight to working from home and more flexible working arrangements, aided by technology and video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Lifesize, Teams and Google Meet to meet the challenges of Covid-19, changing curriculum and adjusted pedagogies?

Covid has made educational employers move away from traditional thinking that productivity is contingent upon set hours within a classroom or office environment. As we start to return to workplaces and find a “new-normal”, alternative working patterns will also help reduce commuter traffic, climate management and with ongoing social distancing measures.

NEU priorities

For NEU, our priorities must lie in both negotiating better flexible working policies in schools and colleges, as well as focussing on a less constrained more creative curriculum with adaptable professional development to navigate these radically changed times.

The change we seek in flexible working is to move towards a more Scandinavian model. This has been formally tabled within the teachers’ pay negotiations and is likely to form part of the formal Review on the Teachers Employment model, one of the 9 reviews emerging from the Aril 28th pay agreement.

The current position is a basic “right to request” flexible working. This should evolve to an acceptance by employers that the default position should be, where possible, to facilitate all or most flexible working requests. Currently, flexible working requests are dealt with at school or college level, based on the ‘business need’. We seek an evolution away from considering flexible working requests within the limitations of the single school/college unit towards a pooled regional arrangement. In a wider pooled arrangement, if the school in question cannot facilitate a flexible working request, then the employer would be obliged to look wider, across the region, at another school/college which could accommodate the teacher. Staff may then be faced with a choice of remaining in the school/college they are in on current terms or moving to a different school/college which could accommodate the flexible working requests. It could open up the prospect of teacher “transfers” or swops.

We are also seeking, too, that schools and colleges are obligated to evidence a refusal of flexible working in more detail than merely citing “the needs of the school”. For example, one reason often cited in refusing to accommodate flexible working is that pupils or parents want ‘continuity’ (i.e. the same teacher or lecturer for all classes in the subject concerned), and that breaking continuity through job-sharing, for example, is a sub-optimal outcome. The problem is that there is no hard research or evidence to support this. The scant (and dated) evidence available suggests to opposite – that job-sharing increases the productivity of the teachers and refreshes the offer to students.

On curriculum, NEU has proposed a radically altered creative curriculum with more outdoors learning, more learning by doing, and increased competency amongst the teaching and lecturing workforce for the very different pedagogies associated with supporting remote learners online. The department of education’s recent guidance on supporting remote learning during lockdown is a useful step in the right direction.

The world is changing. Schools, Colleges, and educational setting should change too.