At first sight, the Schools Secretary Ed Balls's decision to force schools by law to implement the workload agreement with the majority of the teachers' unions looks as though it should be unreservedly welcomed. The agreement guarantees teachers at least 10 per cent of their working time away from classroom duties – and there have been complaints, and even one or two threats of industrial action, because individual schools have failed to implement it. It is a national agreement, so schools are required to put it into effect.
It is not, however, as simple as that. Some schools may be justified in saying that they cannot afford to put it into effect because of a lack of resources. The legislation needs to have an addendum saying that there has to be some kind of mechanism to help out schools that are in financial difficulty. It could take the form of an emergency fund available for schools that can prove they need extra money – although that is something that an incoming Conservative government committed to restricting public spending might find hard to support. If there is a need for more resources, that is in a sense a victory for the teachers' unions who signed the agreement and went into social partnership with the Government.
In particular, it is a victory for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which has been more religious in sticking to its side of the bargain and not criticising ministers over aspects of the agreement.
It also exposes the folly of the National Union of Teachers' decision to remain the only teachers' union to stay outside the agreement a full five years after its members began to enjoy some of its benefits. The NUT remains opposed, largely on the grounds that it does not want to dilute classroom standards by allowing teaching assistants to take control of classes.
This week's events show that any union is more likely to influence the Government's agenda by going into a social partnership with ministers rather than standing on the sidelines. As the NASUWT has shown in its position on academies, opposition to other aspects of government policy is not precluded. Sadly, it does not look as though the NUT will change its stance on this.