Chalk Talk: The teachers' protest that may be the shape of things to come

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The Independent Online

Asign of the times? The National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers is protesting about Britain's biggest head teachers' union's links with a private company providing education services. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, argues that the arrangement between the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Schools Advisory Service could lead to a "conflict of interest".

The firm provides services to schools, including personnel and insurance against staff absence. Some of these, argues the NASUWT, are in competition with our much-maligned local authorities, who are already facing their services being culled.

Ms Keates argues two things. One, if there is a dispute between a school and its staff, the teachers will want to be sure that human resources advice is impartial. Having worked in the private sector for 40 years, while I find that idea laudable, I don't get the argument. Two, as a result of its influence on various national bodies, the NAHT could glean commercial information that would be of use to SAS (the company's unfortunate abbreviation).

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, can't see what the fuss is about. The NAHT has had the agreement with SAS for nine years, using its absence cover insurance, which is not in competition with local authorities, he replies. "Every union has a commercial arm and we've been doing it for a long time without any complaint or conflict of interest," he says.

Interestingly, though, he believes we could see more arrangements of this ilk as local authority budgets dwindle. "With the difficulties local authorities have, our members need to know the quality of service provided by alternative suppliers," he said. "We wouldn't put our name to something that would damage education services in any circumstances."

Even though this arrangement has been uncontroversial for several years, its ilk is a sign of the times. That, in turn, is likely to fuel more opposition from teachers' unions.

* Mike Kent, a primary school head teacher in south London, was baffled by the latest missive from his local authority, listing the public holidays for 2011-12. Christmas Day would be on 26 December, Boxing Day on the 27th and New Year's Day would be celebrated on 2 January.

Kent, a regular contributor to The Times Educational Supplement, immediately asked if the authority had alerted Christians to this major change in the calendar.

It was, of course, an error, but it does raise the question of whether a local authority needs to alert its schools as to when Christmas Day is.