Richard Garner: Teachers should be cautious about taking strike action

If I can spend 26 Easter Sundays at the NUT conference, Charles Clarke can spend just one
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The Independent Online

Yesterday was the 26th Easter Sunday that I have spent at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference. And not a single one of the last 26 years has passed without my listening to delegates voting for a motion warning of action "up to and including strike action" over the latest perceived threat by the Government to their pay and conditions.

Yesterday was the 26th Easter Sunday that I have spent at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference. And not a single one of the last 26 years has passed without my listening to delegates voting for a motion warning of action "up to and including strike action" over the latest perceived threat by the Government to their pay and conditions.

You may not like that fact, you may think teachers should be more professional than to indulge in such antics, but it is the sort of thing that trade unions do. But does the NUT ever deliver on those resolutions? And will they do so this year?

The answer to the first question is yes, they sometimes do. They boycotted national curriculum tests 12 years ago and they have taken strike action in individual local education authorities over redundancies several times.

The answer to the second question is possibly - over the threat of teacher redundancies again. However, parents should not be reaching yet for the telephone to organise extra child care in case their offspring are sent home from school next term.

I do not detect a militant mood in schools. Last year, I left the NUT conference convinced the teachers really would pose a threat to the Government's testing regime when they unanimously backed a motion calling for a ballot on boycotting tests for seven-, 11- and 14-year-olds. They had won support for a boycott a decade previously when the tests were first introduced and their opposition to them seemed no less intense this time.

In the end, although 80 per cent of those who voted favoured a boycott, the turnout was too low (less than 40 per cent) to meet a union requirement that more than 50 per cent of those eligible to vote must back the action before it is taken. Why wasn't the turnout higher? One reason is that other teacher unions refused to join in so it would have set teacher against teacher if the NUT were to go it alone.

As a result of that vote, coupled with the fact that I genuinely believe the Government has done much to improve the status of teaching (witness the 50 per cent increase in applications for teacher training courses over the past two years), I would add a note of caution to the strident calls for strike action this year.

Take the first confrontation with the Government over the employment of classroom assistants to take over lessons from qualified teachers. In individual schools, the teachers will know the classroom assistants well and they will know that would poison the atmosphere if the teachers were to strike over what could be perceived by some classroom assistants as the first step towards a career enhancement.

Also, not only will the other unions not be backing the move, they positively support the upgrading of the classroom assistants' role. They see it as the only way of delivering on the Government's plans to reduce their workload. The classroom assistants will be adequately trained, says the Government, and those that want to remain as classroom aids will not be dragooned into taking over lessons.

Two caveats remain: at present, classroom assistants do not receive adequate pay for their newly enhanced status (less than a supermarket checkout girl, according to the irate husband of one who accosted the Schools Minister Stephen Twigg on the subject last week); and there is also the question of whether the Government is providing enough extra funding to make the scheme work. The idea, though, is one well worth pursuing.

On the second question of teacher redundancies, there already has been strike action this year in schools in Croydon, and there may well be strikes in other areas when the full implication of this year's budget settlement is felt in May.

The Government argues that it has given all schools a guarantee they will get a 4 per cent increase per pupil in their budgets this year. All well and good, but that does not take into account the difficulties many face because a drop in the birth rate is now finding its way into the nation's primary schools. Rolls are falling and teachers are having to be sacked because of that. The NUT argues, with justification, that a prime minister dedicated to "education, education and education" as his top three priorities should use those falling rolls as an opportunity to improve conditions and staffing ratios in schools.

This brings me to my final point. If I can spend 26 Easter Sundays at the NUT conference, surely Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, can spent just one. He has boycotted it for the second year running to punish the NUT for opposing the workload agreement signed with the other unions. But the responsibility of a government in a democracy is to argue for its views, to try to convince doubters of the errors of their ways. Mr Clarke may not have won the hearts and minds of the NUT delegates, but there is a wider audience of newspaper readers and television viewers who could well have been convinced by a robust attempt to defend his policies.

r.garner@independent.co.uk

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