Teachers union threatens national strike

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The Independent Online

Britain's biggest teachers' union yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favour of backing strike action in schools if classroom assistants are allowed to take over lessons from teachers.

Delegates at the National Union of Teachers' conference in Harrogate called for strikes in individual schools and a series of half-day national stoppages over the proposal, which is aimed at reducing teachers' workload.

The decision to reject the proposal, contained in an agreement between the Government and the country's other five teaching unions, puts the NUT on a collision course with the Department for Education over Tony Blair's plans for modernising the teaching profession.

Mary Compton, the NUT president and a teacher from Radnor, told the conference: "We cannot support the use of teaching assistants to take whole classes - as educators because it sells children short, and as trade unionists because it directly takes work from our supply teacher members.''

Yesterday's vote commits the union to balloting for strike action in individual schools, as well as considering national half-day stoppages.

Under the deal signed with the other unions, classroom assistants will be used to take whole classes as part of a move to give teachers more time away from the classroom for marking and preparation. From this September, a new clause in teachers' contracts will limit the amount of stand-in cover they do for absent colleagues to 38 hours a year.

An agreement, leaked to the press, between local authority leaders and unions representing classroom assistants makes it clear they will "undertake marking of pupils' work and accurately record achievement/progress''.

Union leaders say the dispute will flare up in September, as schools will not have enough cash in their budgets to employ extra teaching staff to implement the agreement.

The threatened strike action was opposed by one delegate, Simon Horne, who said: "It doesn't face up to the reality of the NUT being left out in the cold in the TUC and with the other teacher unions. It calls for some form of national strike action but no strategy for securing support for it.''

Ministers believe the workload agreement is essential to improve teaching standards by giving teachers more time to prepare lessons. They also believe that reducing workload will help recruitment.

Earlier in her speech to the conference, Ms Compton spoke of a funding crisis in schools. "Children are being taught in oversized classes in uninspiring, leaking old buildings," she said. "In some areas parents are having to raise money for teachers' salaries in order to avoid losing staff.''