Teachers on brink of first strike in 31 years

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Members of the biggest teaching union were poised last night for their first national strike in 31 years over the Government's introduction of performance-related pay.

Delegates at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference in Harrogate said the decision to set teachers' pay partly by their pupils' results would lead to a new culture of "testing and tears".

The union's leaders oppose the proposal for a one-day national strike but are backing a campaign of disruption in schools. They intend to ballot members next term on a work-to-rule campaign which would stop after-school activities such as drama and sport and cut back on meetings and form-filling.

Teachers' employers also attacked the Government, warning that it will face legal challenges from teachers who are turned down for pay rises.

Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, said that the prospects for the national strike were "finely balanced" after the extreme left moved an amendment to the executive's motion on performance pay. The vote on the amendment calling for a strike will not be taken until tomorrow.

Mary Compton, a delegate from Radnor, who seconded the amendment, told the conference that children would be put under pressure as teachers tried to meet targets to boost their pay. "This is as much about protecting children as about protecting teachers.

"My daughter came home in tears because she had failed to turn over a page in a national test. School is being changed insidiously into an environment of targets, tests and tears. If we can't fight to protect teachers against the greatest threat to the profession in our lifetime, what are we in a union for?"

Under the scheme, heads will decide which teachers should receive £2,000 pay rises for meeting new national standards. External assessors will check the decision.

Ms Compton, who received a standing ovation, said: "I worked for 10 years for a bullying head who made grown men weep and women break down. Imagine what he would have done with the Government's performance management scheme."

Bob Sulatycki, from Kensington and Chelsea, said a successful one-day strike would "transform the situation". The furore over the stress caused by the tests for seven-year-olds showed teachers could win parental support for a strike.

Mr McAvoy said that if delegates voted to strike, the executive would have to gaugesupport among members as a whole. He believed a strike would not attract enough backing. "If a strike is not overwhelmingly successful it gives the Government ammunition to attack the union."

Graham Lane, the education chairman of the Local Government Association, said his members could be taken to employment tribunals by disgruntled teachers even though the decisions on pay were made by central Government.

Mr Blunkett will promise to spend £500m on "sin bins" for unruly pupils in a speech on Thursday.