Leading article: A lesson in selfishness

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Today, classrooms across the country that would normally be filled with the sound of pupils getting down to work after the Easter break will be oddly silent. This is because, for the first time in two decades, teachers have decided to withdraw their labour. The result is that almost a third of schools in England and Wales will close or partially close.

At the centre of this stand-off is pay. The National Union of Teachers feels that the Government's offer of a 2.45 per cent pay increase this year, to be followed by a 2.3 per cent rise in 2009 and 2010, is too low. On the other side, ministers are refusing to budge.

It is possible to have a degree of sympathy with NUT members. The cost of living does seem to be outstripping the Government's preferred inflation index. If one accepts the retail price index, rather than the consumer price index, as the true measure of inflation, teachers can indeed claim that they are being asked to accept a real terms pay cut.

But some context is necessary. For one thing, teachers have done well in pay terms over the past decade. Their average pay has increased by 19 per cent since 1997. The acting general secretary of the NUT, Christine Blower, has complained that teachers' pay is not attracting enough people to the profession. But thousands more teachers have been recruited since 1997, often encouraged by generous signing-on bonuses.

For another, teachers are by no means the only employees in this position. The public finances are much tighter now and the "pain" of the slowdown needs to be shared fairly across the public services. This particular pay offer was recommended by the independent School Teachers' Review Body. It ought to have been accepted by the NUT, as it has been by their colleagues in the other four teachers' unions.

Finally, there is the question of tactics. The withdrawal of labour is an utterly counter-productive way for the NUT to make its point. Rather than embarrassing ministers, a strike will only hurt pupils, particularly those revising for GCSEs and A-levels.

This is not the first time the teaching unions have seemed to put their own interests before those of pupils. The unions have consistently opposed efforts from the Government to reform the education system. Most conspicuously, they have opposed the establishment of city academies. This is not to excuse the Government's habitual and misguided attempts to micromanage the education system. But it does underline the point that education needs to be a joint effort by all parties to serve parents and pupils better. Too often, the teaching unions, in particular the NUT, have seemed to be pulling in the opposite direction.

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