Teachers' union threatens strike action over pay and conditions

The union has a reputation for determined and sustained industrial action once a ballot is passed

Lengthy strikes by teachers over pay and working conditions could hit schools across the country this autumn, the leader of one of the largest teaching unions warns today.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said her members "can't rule out strike action" and that if they held a successful ballot "we would look at a rolling programme of action".

Union members plan to list their grievances with the Government – which include increased pension contributions, pay curbs, the scrapping of national pay rates and longer hours – in a motion at its conference, which opens in Birmingham tomorrow. The union has been operating a work-to-rule in schools since the end of last year in protest at increased working hours.

So far the action has taken the form of refusing to undertake work such as covering for absent colleagues or administrative duties.

Speaking to The Independent, Ms Keates said: "We will be debating a big motion on what is the next stage of our industrial strategy.

"It will be a ratcheting up of our action in the autumn term, when we will be in the second year of pay curbs, have been paying increased pension contributions for six months, new performance management regulations [spot checks on teachers in classrooms] and planned changes to teachers' pay and conditions."

The threat will be particularly worrying for the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, because the union has a reputation for determined and sustained industrial action once a ballot has been passed.

Ms Keates added: "Our action has been short of strike action because we want to make a stand, but we want to do it with minimum disruption to pupils and parents. I can see us ratcheting it up if that kind of smart action is not going to work, though."

Her comments come as the two largest teachers' unions begin their Easter conferences today. The National Union of Teachers (NUT), which is meeting in Torquay, is expected to debate two priority motions calling for industrial action over pensions and pay.

Combined action by the two unions is likely to lead to widespread closures of schools. Meanwhile, a briefing note prepared by the NUT warns of the impact of cuts in local authority budgets on schools.

"Examples of services affected so far include special needs school funding, with almost one in five councils cutting services to deaf children. More than 50 local authorities have either abolished or cut staffing levels in their Traveller education service," it says.

The document paints a picture of "thousands of children missing out on trips to galleries and museums, cuts to school sports, arts and music education funding." It adds: "All areas of education spending will see real-terms cuts, though the severity of the cuts varies: early years, 16 to 19 education and capital funding will see particularly severe cuts."

A spokesman for the Department for Education said it was "far too early" for the unions to talk of strikes. The Schools minister Nick Gibb, reacting to a one-day strike by teachers in London over threats to their pensions, said: "Strikes never solve anything."

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