NUT will back strikes over teaching role for assistants

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Britain's biggest teachers' union will today escalate its opposition to Tony Blair's plans to modernise the teaching profession by backing strike action if classroom assistants are allowed to take over lessons.

Britain's biggest teachers' union will today escalate its opposition to Tony Blair's plans to modernise the teaching profession by backing strike action if classroom assistants are allowed to take over lessons.

Delegates to the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference in Harrogate are certain to vote in favour of strike ballots where unqualified teachers are allowed to take classes. In addition, they will urge the union's executive to consider a series of national half-day stoppages to halt what they believe is an attempt to use "cheap labour'' to replace them in the classroom.

Doug McAvoy, the outgoing general secretary, said yesterday that he expected parents to back the union's stance in opposing the use of unqualified teachers in the classroom. He also rounded on Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, accusing him of being "childish and immature'' in refusing to talk to the union as a result of its decision not to sign the agreement setting up the scheme.

The vote will step up the union's conflict with ministers over the deal to reduce teachers' workload that has been signed by the other five relevant unions. It could lead to children being sent home from school.

The threat also gives ministers an awkward dilemma as a second teachers' union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), has warned it will take strike action if schools fail to employ enough extra classroom assistants to reduce teachers' workload.

At the heart of the argument is the deal with the Government under which classroom assistants would be given specialist training so they could take over classes and release teachers to spend more time marking and preparing lessons.

The deal offers teachers a contract limiting the number of hours per year they have to cover lessons for absent and ill colleagues to 38 from this September, and a clause guaranteeing 10 per cent of the school day away from the classroom comes into force in September 2005. Teachers have already been relieved of administrative duties - such as collecting dinner money and chasing up truants - under the first phase of the agreement, which came into force last September.

Today's vote is one of two major challenges to the Government that will be made at the NUT conference. A separate motion to be debated tomorrow will commit the union to strike action over redundancies if schools are forced to sack teachers this summer because of cash shortages. An independent survey published by the union yesterday showed many school budgets would plunge into the red again this summer.

Mr McAvoy, speaking on the BBC Radio Four's World At One programme, said: "It can't be the quality of education you'd expect from a Labour government. With an election not far away, it may be that they would want to think again.''

He told journalists later there was "nothing adult'' in the way ministers were behaving. He said he assumed Mr Clarke's stance was backed by the Prime Minister and added: "We're more excluded now than we were under Margaret Thatcher.''

Asked if that meant teachers should still vote Labour or switch to the Conservatives, he replied: "I think teachers will make the decision for themselves. They should - and I am sure they will - analyse what has happened under a Labour government. Part of that analysis will be that the Government has taken away the right of children to be taught by a qualified teacher. I don't think that will be forgotten by teachers at the time of the general election.''

Union leaders expect the dispute over classroom assistants to escalate when the cover clause of the new workload agreement comes into force in schools this September. The NUT suspects the continuing squeeze on school funding will mean many heads have little option but to employ classroom assistants instead of extra teaching staff.

Even before that time some schools may be forced to use them as an emergency measure because of a lack of funding, union activists say.

The union move will increase resentment among ministers of the NUT's decision to refuse to sign the agreement. Ministers argue that it enhances the status of teachers by freeing them from a series of administrative duties and they believe it will make the profession more popular in the eyes of potential recruits.

They are optimistic too, that there will be enough funding in schools for them to implement the agreement by employing extra staff if necessary, thus staving off the threat of industrial action by the ATL.

A survey by The Independent earlier this week revealed a patchy picture on school funding, with 700 teachers and support staff likely to lose jobs this summer as a result of school rolls falling, but no widespread redundancies.

The NUT research, carried out by John Atkins, an education consultant, concluded: "There is a general feeling that 'this was meant to be a good year for education, but is not'.''