Will this be teachers' winter of discontent?

With even the more moderate teaching unions balloting for industrial action, there is a real prospect of strikes – and widespread school closures – later this year.

This is not Thatcher," said one seasoned delegate as lecturers debated strike action over the Government's cuts at their annual conference. "They're already making U-turns. We can win on this. We cannot squander this opportunity."

In a sense those words sum up the feelings of the teachers' and lecturers' unions, who are currently engaged in a war with ministers on two fronts: the public spending cuts and the threat to reduce their pensions. There has been talk of a "summer of discontent" – mainly because the teachers' unions – or at least the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) – are balloting on strike action, which would begin with a one-day stoppage on 30 June. Lecturers and civil servants are likely to be joining them on the picket line.

However, there will be only one day of action this summer. It is in the autumn that the mettle of the teachers' unions and the determination of the Government will be tested. If there is no flexibility on the part of the Government over pensions (and the signs from negotiations so far is that there is not), the third teachers' union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers is likely to join in the action.

Headteachers, too, will be balloting on industrial action for the first time. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) have already decided to go down this route and the Association of School and College Leaders has already found from sounding out its members that they would be prepared to follow suit.

It would be unprecedented for schools to face industrial action from five unions – including two representing headteachers – at the same time. It would make it likely that most of the state schools in the country would close (and some in the independent sector, too).

Both the NUT and ATL have talked in their conference motions of "discontinuous" strike action, ie, a series of strikes spread through the winter months. Not for nothing, then, did Alan Whitaker, president of the University and College Union (UCU) until its recent conference, warn of the prospect of a lengthy period of strikes. "It won't be easy and it won't be pleasant but – in order to achieve anything – we have to be prepared for sustained periods of industrial action," he told The Independent. "I just hope we're going to find our members are up for the struggle."

Are they? Now, I do not want any public sympathy for this, but I have sat through four union conferences over the past few weeks. The delegate quoted at the beginning of this piece may have been referring to action over spending cuts but, if anything, I have detected more of a mood of militancy over the threat to pensions than the public spending cuts. Certainly, it is the pensions threat that has got the backs up of the ATL, which is also contemplating national strike action for the first time in its history, and the NAHT.

According to union estimates, the average teacher will have to fork out an extra £100 a month for their pension. Given that most will still retire at 60 because of the exhausting nature of the job, even though the retirement age is eventually raised to 68, that would cost them another £100. You can also see why headteachers are in the front line of opposition. One of the proposals is to base pensions on average salary rather than final salary. Heads, of course, have the highest final salaries.

On the public spending cuts, while one can see sporadic strike action in some local authority areas with the deepest cuts, on their own they would be unlikely to provoke the kind of sustained national action that union officials are talking about.

The $64,000 question – as the saying goes? Will we see a sliver of discontent this summer lead to the kind of autumn and winter of discontent that we have not really seen in this country since 1979?

Back to our delegate at the UCU conference. He would cite the Government's U-turn on selling off the forests and the "pause" in its plans for National Health Service reorganisation as evidence that the Coalition can quite easily be put on the back foot by determined opposition. Some would also argue that Universities minister David Willetts' refusal to issue an immediate denial of a story that he planned to allow rich parents to spend more to get their offspring into elite universities until Downing Street horror at the reaction to the plan, as further evidence of the flaky nature of government thinking.

On the other hand, the tuition fees demonstrations before Christmas failed to dampen the enthusiasm of ministers for raising fees to up to £9,000 a year from September 2012.

It will all probably boil down to a question of who blinks first and, remember, the delegate is quite right to point out that they are not lined up against Thatcher. They are taking on a Coalition Government and a Coalition Government where Liberal Democrat MPs are becoming increasingly queasy at being painted as responsible for the savage nature of the cuts in public servants' living standards.

We shall get a clearer picture of the determination amongst union members for the fight when the results of the NUT and ATL ballots on strike action are declared next week. It will be the ATL result that is the most important. If it produces a substantial majority in favour of industrial action on a good turnout, that will be a blow for the Government

Make no mistake, though. Middle England, in the guise of headteachers and independent-school teachers, is up in arms over the Government's proposals. Exactly how far they will go to scupper the proposals is unclear as yet, though.

However, it may be that thoughts of the electoral consequences of upsetting this constituency may have a greater bearing on the outcome of the forthcoming dispute than the prospect of the one-day "general strike" by all public sector workers which has been the theme of most union conferences this spring.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

DT Teacher - Textiles

£100 - £135 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We urgently require a DT t...

Year 1 Teacher for long term roles starting in September

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Year 6 Teachers needed for long term and day to day roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Year 5 Teachers needed for various roles across Berkshire

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week