Nasuwt: 'We can win the hearts and minds of parents'

The UK's largest teaching union has begun industrial action. But with schools still open, its leader is convinced families will be right behind it, she tells Richard Garner

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All the headlines on 30 November last year were about how the one-day public service strike over pensions was closing the majority of the country's schools. However, a potentially more significant dispute in education started the following day, when members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teacher s (Nasuwt) started a national work-to-contract over conditions in schools.

It means they will stick by the much-heralded workforce agreement between the teachers' unions and the Government that was signed, sealed and delivered under Labour. They will only in exceptional circumstances cover the classes of colleagues who are sick or absent for any other reason. They will not take on the tasks normally carried out by classroom assistants or other teachers' aides in the event that non-teaching staff is made redundant as a result of the squeeze on school budgets.

It also means that there should be a strict limit on the amount of time devoted to classroom observation of teachers' lessons (three hours a year), a limit Education Secretary Michael Gove believes is particularly iniquitous because, he says, it limits schools' ability to check on the performance of their teaching staff. From the teachers' point of view, it can be used as a bullying tactic by school managements to put the "frighteners" on teachers they would like to leave.

The seeds of the industrial action were sown when the union consulted its members about their concerns soon after the Coalition Government took office. The most obvious threat was over pensions, with the Government planning to raise contributions and eventually bring in a retirement age of 68.

But it was noticeable from the replies to the survey that their biggest concern was over their workloads, which they perceived to be expanding. "It became very clear that we were facing an attack on heads and teachers in all areas," Chris Keates, the union's general secretary, says. "Our industrial action was thought through very carefully. It didn't hurt the children and the parents – the schools were not closing." It concentrated instead on the administration of the school. "We felt we could win the hearts and minds of parents for this as we are standing up for maintaining standards in schools," Ms Keates says.

That is not to say, though, according to Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which represents leaders of secondary schools, that it will not lead to children being sent home in future. "The agreement talks about teachers rarely covering, but the union is treating it like 'no cover'," he says. "There could be cases where you could well find yourself as a head in a situation where you have no one to cover a class and children have to be sent home."

The union calls its action "standing up for standards", arguing that a diminution of teachers' conditions will inevitably impact in the long run on the education children receive in schools (particularly if there are attempts to eat into the time set aside for marking and preparing lessons – according to the agreement, teachers should have one day a week away from the classroom for this). But Mr Lightman argues that the dispute will make it harder for heads to concentrate on their key role of raising standards in schools.

It is difficult to see how the dispute could be solved. The union has spelt out the demands that will have to be met to bring about an end to it. One of the key elements is the creation of a negotiating forum whereby any disputes over the implementation of the workforce agreement could be settled.

Labour had a "social partnership" supported by all the teaching unions except the National Union of Teachers whereby all grievances could be discussed and, hopefully, settled. The Coalition Government has replaced it with an education forum. Ms Keates says: "I can't point to one single thing that we've raised in the education forum that the Government has actually made any changes about as a result." She concedes that Mr Gove is "extremely accessible" but says that meetings usually end up with her spouting the union's position and him becoming exasperated by its stance. "At least I feel I've done the job of putting my members' views to him," she says.

Instead of agreeing to the union's demands, it is quite likely that the "direction of travel" from the Government will move in the opposite direction. Mr Gove has made plain his frustration with limits on classroom observation and is said to be casting his eye over the "rarely cover" clause in the teachers' agreement. In an ideal world, he would prefer to have no national agreement and just leave it up to heads to decide how to treat their staff.

So how effective is the union's action likely to be? According to heads, the response has been "patchy – varying from area to area". According to Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, the most militant area has been Wales (the agreement covers England and Wales).

While relations between the Nasuwt and ASCL have been cordial, Ms Keates accuses the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) of acting "provocatively". It has pointed out that limiting classroom observation could amount to a breach of contract rather than a work-to-contract. "The head has the right to enter any classroom at any time," Mr Hobby says. This, as well as the limit on cover, could easily provide a flashpoint. If a head decided to discipline a teacher for refusing entry into their classroom or deducted pay, the dispute could easily escalate to the point of walk-outs in individual schools.

The union believes its action will help protect the national agreement thrashed out under Labour. Ms Keates is quick to point out that in the national ballots of all their members in England and Wales organised by the two biggest unions, the Nasuwt polled 227,000-plus affected members and the NUT 218,000. "If that's not proof that we're the largest union, then I don't know what is," she says. It is likely, though, that as the union Easter conference season approaches the NUT will come under increasing pressure to mount some kind of similar action to protect their conditions. (Delegates may go even further and vote for strike action.)

The pensions dispute is still rumbling on, with both unions having refused to sign new heads of agreement over pensions. The eight unions representing teachers and lecturers are likely to be split, with headteachers' organisations more likely to sign up to what is on the table.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is over attempting to make teachers carry on working until they are 68 – only uniformed services such as the Army, police and fire brigade have been exempted from the retirement age. "I did say our members would be prepared to put on a uniform to get round that," Ms Keates says wryly.

It looks as though that dispute is more likely to be settled than the work-to-contract. "I can't see any way the terms of their dispute could be resolved," Mr Hobby says. "This could be a long-term issue. They're going against the trend and some of what they're asking for is going in the opposite direction."

Ms Keates accepts it is difficult to persuade Mr Gove to change tack. "He surrounds himself with élite groups that he picks to tell him what he wants to hear or tell him their particular slant on what is happening," she says. "I'm a link with reality because I come in and tell it like it is."