Storm clouds gather over schools as teachers revive spirit of the Eighties - and plan action

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The Independent Online

The teachers' union conference season kicks off today with a whiff of almost unprecedented militancy in the seaside air.

Relations between the Government and the profession have fallen to the point where five of the six teachers' organisations are either already involved in or planning to vote on industrial action. The sixth is the Professional Association of Teachers, which has opposition to industrial action of any kind enshrined in its creed.

The mood is in danger of recapturing the spirit (or lack of it) of the Eighties when schools were dogged by successive years of industrial action. At that time sports activities, drama productions and a whole host of lunchtime activities had to be abandoned as teachers worked to rule.

This time the most pressing problem is over negotiations on teachers' workload. If the unions fail to reach an agreement with ministers, they plan to impose a 35-hour week in the autumn. Administrative duties, out-of-hours classes for both gifted and struggling pupils, and parents' evenings could all be affected.

Delegates, the first of whom gather in Cardiff today for the annual conference of the most moderate of the three TUC- affiliated unions – the Association of Teachers and Lecturers – are hardly likely to be encouraged by an Independent survey of local authority education budgets which shows one in five councils struggling to meet the cost of the teachers' pay award.

The survey highlights the financial problems dogging many schools, which threaten to exacerbate the rift between teachers and the Government.

The councils say the rises will either mean a standstill budget for the rest of the education service, or actual cuts in spending for the worst cases, such as Hull. Some teachers could be laid off. The cuts will be made even though the Government has allotted local authorities 5.7 per cent extra for education spending this year.

Graham Lane, the education chairman of the Local Government Association, said some councils, particularly in northern England, had been adversely affected by the way the Government's cash has been distributed.

"Most of the others will have growth, but that growth will be much less because of the cost of meeting the teachers' pay award," he said, adding that the survey coincided with local authority findings and would be used as ammunition to ask ministers to meet the full cost of the teachers' pay award.

Sources at the Department for Education and Skills reacted angrily to the local authorities' claims, however. A senior aide to Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said: "They were given £23.8bn, which was an increase of £1.3bn. That's a great deal of money, which we expect local education authorities to use wisely ... We expect them to get on with the job of raising standards."

But some civil servants privately believe authorities have not given education the priority it deserves and have squirrelled away the cash to prop up other services.

The worst affected council was Hull, which dragged itself off the bottom of the GCSE exam performance league tables for the first time in several years last summer. It said it was suffering a £1m cut this year as it struggled to cope with inflation, pay awards and loss of special grants.

One of the areas to suffer is funding to help ethnic minority pupils because of a government decision to freeze its grant to advisory services set up to help them.

Even some councils with an increase in spending – such as Stockport with a £1.2m extra – are facing cuts. Stockport Council said: "The increase is insufficient to enable all demands on the budget to be met. There will therefore be a cut in school budgets of £2m at 2.2 per cent."

Education authorities said the true cost of the teachers' pay settlement this year was about 5 per cent. That was made up of their 3.5 per cent rise from April; an extra 0.5 per cent because the salary structure had changed (in effect giving bigger rises to some staff); and changes to pensions contributions that put an extra one per cent on the budget.

One of the most significant areas to benefit from a boost in funding was the provision of out-of-school places for disruptive pupils. The Government has made a pledge to provide full-time education for all pupils excluded from school from September in an attempt to make sure they do not fall prey to a life of crime.

Further dissatisfaction among school staff has been caused by a letter from Estelle Morris to the chairman of the teachers' pay review body, which is conducting an investigation into their workload.

In the letter, she rules out one of the main demands of the teachers' unions for a weekly limit on the amount of classroom contact time.

Ms Morris supports her decision by arguing: "All the evidence from teachers about workload issues makes clear their frustration at being diverted to routine clerical and administrative duties, not at the amount of teaching they do.

"It cannot be right to frame a solution in terms of limiting pupil contact, which implies that the teachers' main problem is with teaching."

However, she goes on to say that she has sympathywith union demands for a defined amount of time to be spent on marking and preparation.

All three teacher union conferences – the ATL, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) – are now likely to agree to issue a warning that there will be industrial action if a package to reduce teachers' workload is not settled by the autumn.

Industrial action is also being contemplated jointly for the first time in the history of state education by both of the headteachers' unions, the National Association of Head Teachers and Secondary Heads Association.

They are threatening a boycott of the performance-related pay assessments of their staff because the Government has only given them enough funding to give half of the eligible senior staff a £1,000 rise. That ballot will take place after Easter.

The third dispute is over cost-of-living allowances in London and the South-east. The NUT has already staged a one-day strike in protest at a £105 rise for members in inner London and is likely to discuss further action over Easter. There are also demands for national strike action over teachers' pay.

All in all, before she addresses the ATL and NUT conferences in the next few days, Ms Morris might be advised to seek advice from Conservative education ministers of the Eighties. They could tell her a thing or two about handling irate teachers.

Children are the losers when city runs out of cash

Steve Graham, head of Cleeve Primary School in Hull, welcomed New Labour's initiatives and commitment to education when it came to power. But having been forced to cut £2,000 from other parts of the school to fund pay rises for his 14 staff, he is no longer such a fan.

"We have had to make savings," he said. "I have spent less on books and stationery this year because the budget from the local authority was so disappointing.

"You could argue that £2,000 is not a lot of money but we would have done a lot with it. This is money that I would have spent on children's education that has had to go towards teachers' pay rises."

The budget cuts Mr Graham is having to implement are part of £1m which has been pruned from Hull's funds. Exam results in the city are already among the worst in Britain, and the cash cuts mean it is likely to remain near the bottom of the class.

The inadequacy of its latest budget, the "worst" since 1997, has prevented Kingston-upon-Hull City Council from funding the teachers' pay rise in full. Its schools will have to shoulder a £300,000 shortfall while repairs to youth and adult education centres will be halted as the council's non-school education budget is cut by £700,000 for the new financial year.

The council says refugees and ethnic minority pupils could also suffer after government grants to support them were frozen for the second year running. Hull has already had to meet the needs of 140 asylum-seekers without any extra funding, it argues.

Nationally, teachers were awarded a 3.5 per cent pay rise this year but Hull's council can afford to fund only 3 per cent. Its schools will have to find the remaining 0.5 per cent by making cuts elsewhere. Council officers have calculated this will cost schools about £8 per pupil or £2,500 for an average-sized primary school. Many schools have reserves of cash but others may struggle to find the money.

Martin Fox, the assistant director of finance, said: "We have always funded the teachers' pay rise in full in recent years but we just cannot afford to do it this year.

"Over the last couple of years there has been a substantial increase in resources. But this is the first year we have not been able to fund schools to the level needed to meet all the different pressures on them."

Sarah Cassidy