500,000 pupils hit by school strikes

Unions try to play down biggest action since mid-1980s
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UP to half a million children will be affected by a wave of one-day and half-day strikes by teachers protesting against cuts in education spending this week. The strikes, which have been played down by opposition politicians and teachers' union leaders, represent the biggest outbreak of strike action in schools since the mid-1980s.

Schools in Derbyshire, Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley are likely to be disrupted today, and teachers in Devon are expected to stop work tomorrow. n Nottinghamshire, many schools were wholly or partially closed yesterday.

Similar action has taken place in Lambeth, Newcastle and Oxfordshire in recent weeks in protest at the government's decision not to fund the teachers' 2.7 per cent pay rise.

The move will increase pressure on the government to find extra money for education in next year's budget, but last night it was condemned by opposition politicians. Neither the Labour Party nor the teachers' unions want renewed industrial action when a teachers' boycott of testing has just ended and local elections are only weeks away.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said he did not favour strike action in these circumstances. The Liberal Democrats said it was "not particularly helpful but entirely understandable."

School governors and parents have already taken action against the education cuts, which will mean classes of 40 or more in many primary schools. Many schools have set illegal budgets rather than sack teachers, and more than 10,000 demonstrators attended a march in London last month. Governors and teachers from every local education authority lobbied MPs after a separate rally.

Last night local council and union officials said most schools in the affected areas would be hit by the strikes, which involved members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and in some cases, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

Yvetta Jacques, head teacher of Brockley Primary School in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, said her school would be closing for half a day as teachers from all over the county attended rallies.

Pupil numbers at her school had dropped by 17 per cent in five years but the number of classes had been cut from six to three. This September there would be a class of 41, 38 and 33 pupils.

"It is ridiculous. It isn't education, it is just containment. I have excellent teachers, thank goodness, but no-one can do justice to a class of 41," she said.

Dennis Bates, NUT secretary for Rotherham, said most schools there would be affected by the strike. "The point is to hold a public demonstration of our concerns and our anxieties about the state of education today because of the cuts, and about the future of education. We would like to persuade the government to change its mind this year, but we certainly want to make sure that the government doesn't do this again next year," he said.

In Sheffield, most schools are likely to be affected by a one-day strike today.

While many parents support the teachers' cause, not all support their methods. Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said interrupting education was not the best way forward. "We understand their frustration but if this was to snowball across the country it would really be very concerning because many schools start examinations in the next few weeks," she said.

Mr Blunkett said teachers' action should put pressure on ministers rather than on parents. "Saving children's futures rather than damaging them should be the priority," he said.