Britain's biggest teachers' union threw down the gauntlet to the Government yesterday over staff shortages by threatening a series of classroom walkouts that could force thousands of children to be sent home from school.
Delegates at the National Union of Teachers' conference in Bournemouth voted in favour of a ballot on refusing to cover classes after one day if a teacher was absent through illness or on a course.
The decision came immediately after union delegates had voted unanimously to threaten industrial action this autumn over their workload.
The motion also called for a ballot on boycotting all new initiatives from the Government, which would jeopardise ministers' plans for raising school standards.
Union moderates warned that the decision could wreck the united approach of the three big teachers' unions the NUT, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers over joint industrial action to reduce workload. After the vote, Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT, described it as "unhelpful" and said unions would have to see how they could "get the show back on the road".
Tony Brockman, a former president of the NUT, told the conference: "Unilateral action by our union would be the best present you could give Tony Blair from this conference."
He said the decision would divide the three unions, adding: "We would find it hard to persuade our members to take this action. They would lose pay day after day after day."
The tough strategy was agreed by 116,080 votes to 86,890.
Last night Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, sought to play down the motion's impact. "This won't wreck anything," he said, adding that teachers were already entitled to time off within four weeks if they covered for absences.
Earlier, the conference had voted in favour of balloting for nationwide industrial action over their workload in the autumn if a package to improve conditions was not agreed by the end of the summer.
Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, was said to be "furious" and "disappointed" by the NUT's decision. A spokeswoman for her department said: "Industrial action will damage the education of children and the reputation of teachers. We've made it clear before that threats of industrial action will not have any influence on government policy."
A report on reducing teachers' workload is to be published by the profession's pay review body later this month. Ministers will decide whether to fund its recommendations in July.
An aide to Ms Morris said last night that the Government was considering offering teachers a guaranteed period of up to four hours a week away from the classroom as marking and preparation time to try to ease their workload.
Mr McAvoy described the prospect as a "significant step in the right direction'' if the time was granted during the school day. He said that if it was outside school hours it would have to be negotiated and would be inadequate to meet teachers' needs.
Teachers at the NUT conference voted in support of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, with leaders of the union's socialist wing saying they could understand why Palestinians chose to become suicide bombers. An attempt by left-wingers to equate the deaths of Iraqi children which they blamed on UN sanctions with the 11 September attacks ran out of time.
Meanwhile, the Government came under fire yesterday from the NASUWT for turning a blind eye while Britain "plundered" teachers from the developing world to plug staff shortages. Peter Butler, president of the union, accused Mr Blair of hypocrisy in attempting to broker international peace while ignoring the damage being done by Britain in enticing the "academic élite" away from the poorest nations.
Mr Butler told his union's annual conference in Scarborough that teachers' pay should be raised to entice more British graduates into the profession. In the past year, the union had received applications for membership from teachers from 27 countries including South Africa, Russia, Nigeria, Cuba, Zimbabwe and India, he said.Reuse content