School's out for two million children as teachers strike

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The Independent Online

Teachers' leaders warned yesterday of further strike action as their first national stoppage for more than two decades led to lessons being disrupted for up to two million children at schools across the country.

Britain's biggest teachers' union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), will meet soon to decide on its next phase of action in the wake of the Government's refusal to budge on a 2.45 per cent award. It wants a rise of at least 4.1 per cent – in line with the retail price index.

The union is mandated by its annual conference to consider further industrial action, which is likely to take the form of rolling strike action in different parts of the country. Kevin Courtney, the NUT's executive member for inner London, told a rally of striking teachers in London: "I suggest to you if the Government doesn't back down we can't let the grass grow under our feet on the question of industrial action. We should ballot for further action with as many other unions as possible taking."

The one-day strike coincided with industrial action by college lecturers and civil servants – also in protest over pay – and the TUC indicated yesterday that it was prepared to back a concerted campaign by public sector unions against government curbs on their pay.

Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, warned of the effect of the "battered morale" of teachers on their children's education. In the private sector, significant settlements have reached a 15-year high," he said. "The Government has to be persuaded to turn away from their wrong-headed approach to public sector pay."

A lobby of Parliament by all public sector unions is being planned for 9 June.

About 6,500 teachers marched through the centre of London – sent on their way by the singer Billy Bragg – to attend the rally. Around the country, there were similar rallies in 50 cities and towns and local education authorities estimated that up to 8,000 schools either closed completely or had to send some children home for the day.

In Liverpool, just six primary schools and one secondary school out of 194 were fully open for the day. In Cumbria, more than 90 schools were shut and a further 53 partially closed.

The local authorities' figures tallied with those put out by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which showed 12 per cent of schools had closed (about 2,000), 21 per cent (just over 5,000) had some classes affected and 67 per cent remained open.

Christine Blower, the acting general secretary of the NUT, in a reference to Steve Sinnott, the former general secretary who died of a heart attack just days after the strike vote was announced: "We've done Steve proud. We need fair play for all public service workers and – in particular – fair play for teachers."

The NUT's action, which is not supported by the other five teachers' and headteachers' unions, brought protests from across the political spectrum.Jim Knight, the Schools minister, told Radio 4's Today programme: "Teachers are well paid – they have had a 19 per cent real terms increase since 1997, which I think is strong.

"This is alongside 37,000 more teachers and a better teaching environment due to the school building programme – this is all helping to raise standards."

Nick Gibb, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, said it was "deeply regrettable" that so many children were having their education disrupted, particularly in the period when pupils are preparing for public examinations.

A poll of parents carried out jointly by the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations and the Times Educational Supplement showed only one in three supported teachers in seeking a 4.1 per cent pay rise. A majority (60 per cent) felt teachers should receive a rise in line with the limits imposed on public sector pay.

The teachers' tales

Carrie-Ann Taylor

In 1997 Carrie-Anne Taylor – now a 29-year-old English teacher at Haverstock School in Camden, north London – was doing her A-levels when Tony Blair pledged that "education, education, education" would be his top three priorities. Eleven years later she believes that pledge has been translated for her into "debt, debt, debt".

She earns about £25,000 but has to pay back the debts accrued through her time as a student at a rate of £1,000 a month.

"That's half my income gone," she said. "I'm getting a 2.45 per cent pay award but inflation is at about 4.5 per cent. Even as an English teacher I can see that the maths doesn't work.

"I still can't get on the property ladder."

Catherine Tooley

Catherine Tooley, 26, a newly qualified teacher at an Islington secondary school, who had to survive on £3,000 as she studied to become a teacher, has just been told she will have to pay her loan from her student days back at a rate of 4.8 per cent interest.

"Only half that as a pay rise is a bit of an insult," she said. "I have to spend part of the summer holiday working at another job to pay back this debt I got in order to be a teacher."

She said she had been a Labour supporter for years. "I was told by my parents to support Labour because they look after public workers. I shall probably still support them because I can't think of anything else."

Aggie Makulska

At the age of 31, Aggie Makulska is still living at home with her parents.

"Believe me, it's because I can't really leave them as I have a debt of £20,000," she said. "The only thing keeping me in the job for now is the children. I'm trapped... I have no chance of getting on the housing ladder.

Aggie, a teacher at Benthall primary school in Hackney, east London, said she had not been a union activist and was "very happy" but added: "I deserve quality to my life. I'm worth it."

She said that as she had been passing Downing Street on her way to the NUT rally she had been tempted to ask Gordon Brown if he had a room available. "My parents would love the break," she added.