Teachers are threatening to walk out of classrooms across the country next term after an agreement to reduce their workload was rejected by headteachers.
Heads who refuse to implement the deal were warned by the second-largest teachers' union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, that they would face "legal and industrial action". Under the agreement, all schools should have introduced by September a strict limit on the hours which teachers spend covering for absent colleagues, and guarantee them 10 per cent of the school day out of the classroom for marking and preparation.
In schools where teachers agree to industrial action, union members will refuse to cover classes once the limit is reached, and insist on taking their 10 per cent of time for marking and preparation from September. The union describes its action as a "work to contract". Teachers will remain on the school premises marking and preparing lessons but refusing to take classes. The move could lead to unsupervised children being sent home.
A dossier of all schools refusing to implement the agreement is being drawn up for the union's annual conference this Easter, with the threat that they will get a letter warning of legal action immediately.
Leaders of the National Association of Head Teachers agreed on Wednesday to pull out of the agreement, saying ministers had not given their schools enough money to implement it.
Ministers face a growing revolt over their education reforms. Yesterday, the influential Labour-dominated Commons Select Committee on Education urged Tony Blair to rein in his plan for 200 privately sponsored academies to replace struggling secondaries by the end of the decade. MPs said ministers should wait till the performance of the first 20 was reviewed before expanding. GCSE exam results for the first 11 academies showed five had not improved and two were worse.
Wednesday's decision by heads was narrowly agreed at a special conference of 200 headteachers. Some said jobs would be lost by the squeeze on school budgets this year. David Hart, the NAHT's general secretary, said he had fought "long and hard" to keep the NAHT in the agreement, but added: "The majority vote must prevail."
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "The law is the law and, whatever some NAHT members may think, they are not above it. There have always been headteachers who sought to block improvements to working conditions with threats of job loss. This is the desperate refuge of ineffective management. Any headteacher who seeks to deprive teachers of their contractual entitlements should be prepared to face legal challenge and industrial action."