LEADING ARTICLE : Teachers should ignore the Jurassic tendency

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The Independent Online
Should teachers be banned from striking? If the Conservatives' manifesto initiative were set as an exam question, it should be in a multiple- choice format, but one which offered a choice of questions rather than of answers.

A better opening question would be: should teachers strike? To which the answer would be an emphatic "No".

Another good question could be: what is the NUT doing parading some of its more Jurassic activists in the middle of an election campaign? Since the noisiest delegates at the NUT conference are notoriously unrepresentative of the attitudes and opinions of most of their colleagues, couldn't some bright union moderniser have discovered that the venue was urgently needed by a Natural Law Party yogic flying convention?

It is proper to treat the Tory manifesto pledge, unsurprisingly leaked in advance of Wednesday's launch, with a healthy degree of scepticism. It is a clever spin on an old, unfulfilled Tory promise to act against strikes in "essential" public services. Fourteen years ago, the 1983 Tory manifesto promised "consultation" on curbing disruption in the public sector. Weary trumpeters were called upon to blast another fanfare when Ian Lang unveiled plans to allow customers of public services to sue strikers at last year's Tory conference.

The main purpose of including the pledge in the manifesto is to give Central Office a story to run in the Sunday papers. And if it had not been for the fact that the wheels of the Tory campaign bus are still spinning in the mud of Tatton, this would have been effective propaganda. Although it is not a practical policy (or else it would have passed into law by now), it raises an important issue, for public services in general and teachers in particular. The reason it puts both teachers and the Labour Party on the spot is because it is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which strike action could be justified.

Public servants generally should not strike, because they are employed on behalf of the community, not for profit, and their pay and conditions should be decided by democratic debate rather than by balance of economic interest.

Teachers, in particular, are in a special position. They owe a duty of care to their pupils and should demonstrate responsibility to them; in addition, many poorer families would suffer hardship if children were sent home.

Most teachers agree: there has not been a strike over pay since the mid- Eighties; the campaign against education spending cuts was limited to occasional half-days with the support of parents. It is also wrong to use the threat of strike action to draw attention to a crisis of discipline in a school, as teachers did at the Ridings School in Halifax.

That is not to say, however, that the law should be changed to curtail the right to strike. It may not, in practice, be much of a right worth exercising, but it remains a symbolic freedom. And it may be that a situation could arise where, for example, teachers felt children's safety was at risk, and had no alternative. The deplorable use is to threaten strikes as a protest against the legitimate education policies of a government, or even a government-in-waiting, as the NUT did yesterday. It is not up to the NUT to decide policy on selection. The union has every right to take part in the debate, but must abide by the policy of the democratically elected government.

The union's contribution to the debate is debased by the kind of posturing on display yesterday. It is merely posturing, because there is no likelihood of a nationwide teachers' strike. The aim is to send a message to David Blunkett, who addresses delegates today, that they think he has sold out. But it is counter-productive. It has become a point of honour for Tony Blair and Mr Blunkett to devise policies that the NUT will oppose, because the union (unlike the teaching profession as a whole) stands so low in public esteem.

This is a hopeless situation, as the union's leadership and many of its members know. The union remains in the grip of a species of ideological dogmatism that simply could not survive in any other part of our body politic. Curiously, many of the more exotic breeds of Marxist are brilliant and committed teachers who make a real difference to the lives of children in their schools. But nationally, their hold on the NUT undermines its members' claim to professionalism.

That is the strongest argument for Labour's plan for a General Teaching Council, which otherwise might be dismissed as institutional tinkering. The idea is based on the doctors' professional body, the General Medical Council, in the hope that some of the public reverence in which doctors are held might rub off on teachers. It would be unthinkable for consultants and GPs to strike, and even junior doctors only threatened to "work to rule" in protest against their damagingly long working hours.

A GTC might help to mitigate the damaging effects of competition for members among the three big English teaching unions, and would represent teachers to the general public as a profession rather than as a vanguard of the proletariat. It could also lay down a code of professional standards, which should include renouncing the right to strike. This would have the advantage of coming from teachers themselves, rather than being handed down as an unworkable government edict, and the GTC could take into account exceptional circumstances if teachers felt they were being put in an impossible position. It is the right answer to the right question: teachers should not want to be able to strike.