Head teachers were on a collision course with the Government last night after backing strike action over the threat to their pensions and warning of a possible boycott next year of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds.
Delegates at the National Association of Head Teachers' (NAHT) conference in Brighton voted to hold their first national strike ballot on pensions. Only one of the 350 delegates abstained and no one voted against.
Their involvement in strikes would mean the closure of thousands of schools across England and Wales with upwards of a million pupils being sent home.
The NAHT is the third teachers' union to back a strike following identical votes at the National Union of Teachers and traditionally moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers over Easter. The first teachers' strike is pencilled in for next month.
Under proposed changes to pensions, a head on £50,000 a year would have to pay an extra £142 a month into the pension scheme, the retirement age would be raised to 68, and pensions would be calculated on average rather than final salaries.
David Fann, from Sherwood Primary School in Nottingham, said: "We're going to have to pay more, work longer and get less."
Jan Wiggins, head of Hall School for autistic children in Norwich, said: "I am concerned for my colleagues who are working with children whose behaviour is extreme – what can be very, very aggressive behaviour. What happens to us when we're 65? Will my colleagues be physically putting themselves at risk because actually they shouldn't be there, they should be retired?"
Sue Street, from Harrow High School, north London, added: "Recruitment and retention of school leaders is already a problem. This is going to make people think twice or three times about that decision to move up and lead our fantastic schools." She said ministers should reconsider the plans.
Chris Howard, head of Lewis School Pengam in Bargoed, Wales, and a former president of the NAHT, said there was an unofficial contract between the Government and public sector to reward staff with pensions in return for accepting lower pay than the private sector in their working lives. "In my opinion this will be broken and society will be the poorer for it," he added.
On boycotting national curriculum tests, Steve Iredale, the union's vice- president, said heads would have to consider the move if a Government review – due to be published next month – failed to come up with substantial reforms. The heads want to move away from the tests in English and maths to teachers assessing their own pupils.
Last year a boycott led to one in four schools abandoning the tests but it was called off this year after the Government announced its review.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, addressing the conference, acknowledged there was an "unspoken contract" between teachers and the state over pensions and pay. He said he would make that clear during negotiations on pension reforms: "We need to make sure that the unique circumstances and the unique commitment that teachers and headteachers give is recognised in whatever reformed system we arrive at."
He said of the strike vote: "I expected that the overwhelming majority of the NAHT would vote for the motion. I would personally prefer that no education professional went on strike."
Mr Gove also said he wanted to be sure the new system of tests "doesn't encourage teaching to the test", and he announced the Government was accelerating new measures to speed the dismissal of incompetent teachers.