Teachers prepare to fight over class sizes

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The Independent Online
Teachers' unions, whose conferences begin today, will send out a clear message that they will fight a Labour government which does not improve school funding and cut class sizes.

A higher proportion of teachers than ever before say they will vote Labour at this election - 59 per cent compared with just over half in 1992 - but the unions are already warning that they will rebel if soundbites are not translated into action.

Union leaders are preparing to attack the shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown's promise that he will stick to the Conservatives' spending plans - which involve cuts for education of 7 per cent - for two years. Though most of this will come from capital funding for universities, training for work and further education, schools are also scheduled to lose funds.

Even the traditionally moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers, whose conference begins in Cardiff today is ready for battle. Peter Smith, the union's general secretary, will argue for smaller classes, more money and an end to constant criticism of teachers.

Smaller classes and better funding are also top of the National Union of Teachers' agenda. Doug McAvoy, the general secretary, has made it clear that his union will be pressing Mr Brown to provide more money for schools in his first budget expected in July.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says that he will give a new government a year to sort out teachers' workload problems. After that, he says, his union will ballot its members on industrial action.

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, is another source of contention between Labour and the unions. Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has said Mr Woodhead will keep his job, but both the NUT and the NASUWT have motions before them saying that he should be sacked.

Changes to teachers' pensions proposed by the Government which would make it harder for teachers to retire early have also caused bitter resentment. Tomorrow's ATL conference will discuss a motion that they will lead to "a logjam of older teachers soldiering on against their will" while young teachers and potential recruits are barred from entering the profession. The Government postponed the changes until September but there is no sign that Labour will rescind them.

Mr Smith said teachers would want to see a Labour victory as a turning point. "No one believes the skies will open after 1 May with pounds 10 notes raining down if Labour is elected. There is going to be an enormous amount of goodwill, but whoever gets elected has to deliver on education," he said.

Labour has promised to switch funds to education from social security payments as unemployment falls over the five years of a Labour government. It has also promised to reduce infant class sizes and to repair school buildings using a combination of public and private funds.