Will the teaching unions ever learn their lesson?

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The Independent Online

The Easter teachers' union conference season has been and gone, and we are left with 10 separate threats of industrial action by the three big unions and with the unions no nearer the prospect of a merger to create a single union for the profession.

Some of the wilder threats of industrial action taken by the National Union of Teachers, such as calling for walkouts in protest at staffing shortages if teachers are asked to cover for absent colleagues and ballots on strike action if they have to attend training sessions out of the school day may never happen. But there is a serious threat of more militancy in the classroom over the coming months – particularly if negotiations over attempts to reduce teachers' workloads fail to come to fruition.

It has to be said that the teachers do have a point over their workload, which the Government is trying to accommodate through the employment of an extra 20,000 classroom assistants to relieve them of some administrative burdens. However, they do themselves no favours with their repetition of the constant mantra that they will take industrial action over every perceived grievance.

A single union would marginalise the activities of those who hiss and boo the Secretary of State for Education, whoever it happens to be, every Easter Saturday, guaranteeing that the esteem of the profession falls in every household. The ultra-left has concentrated on gaining influence within the NUT. If the massed ranks of the National Association of Schoolmasters, the Union of Women Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers were to join forces with the NUT, its influence would be diluted. Merger talks should press on, despite the rebuff given to the incoming general secretary of the NASUWT, Eamonn O'Kane, over his attempts to steer a path towards it.

In the absence of any movement on that front, it is good news that Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, has reached agreement with the two headteachers' associations, thus lifting their threat of industrial action over the lack of cash available for performance-related pay rises for their staff. She needs the heads on her side if she is to press ahead with reforms. Similar success in the negotiations over workload would reduce the support for industrial action on other fronts. But it must be said the teachers do not make it easy for her.

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