Leading Article: Teachers strike an uncaring pose

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The Independent Online
The barracking of David Blunkett at the National Union of Teachers' conference in Blackpool was disgusting. But yesterday's step towards taking strike action over rising class sizes could prove to be even more damaging. It suggests that activists within the union have learned nothing at all about how best to win public support for causes that are often sound.

Yesterday's motion, passed in the face of opposition from Doug McAvoy, the NUT general secretary, does not set the union irrevocably on course for a one-day national strike in the summer. But if the union votes tomorrow for a ballot on that policy and members then back a strike, we can expect schools to be disrupted next term. Such action will alienate many parents and threatens to undermine a powerful alliance of parents, governors, teachers and children which has fought funding cuts.

By wielding the strike weapon, teachers would be using an old-style technique the logic of which is that producers can bully their way to a better deal by depriving consumers of the product, in this case, a day's schooling. Yet the history of the Eighties demonstrates that this strategy rarely proves effective. The key to success in industrial conflicts lies in adopting more subtle tactics that orchestrate public support so that the employer or government of the day feels obliged to soften its line.

In the past the British Medical Association has offered the best example of such a strategy by positioning itself as the guardian of patients' interests in the National Health Service. As a result, most people have failed to recognise the BMA for what it really is: a trade union defending its members' interests. The popular perception of the benevolent BMA would certainly be undermined if doctors withheld services from patients over, for example, the Government's proposed new set of payments for night visits.

Teachers have a strong argument against education funding cuts. The case for small classes may not be as self-evident as it might seem: Japan is often quoted as an example of a country that produces good results with classes of 40 and more children. But Japanese culture is quite unlike that of the Western world. More specifically, the child-centred approach demanded by the national curriculum, and the need for constant assessment within the British system, means that smaller classes offer a better chance of improving a child's schooling. The lower pupil-teacher ratio that prevails in the private sector is one of the reasons why parents are prepared to pay school fees.

But teachers will not win on their own. They must cultivate parents who may be apathetic about the issue or simply suspicious of a professional group that seems to have opposed every government initiative over the past few years, whether or not it has proved beneficial to children. They will need to be convinced that the campaign amounts to more than merely teachers trying to protect their own jobs.

In this task the teachers should not follow the tried and failed tactic of winters and summers of discontent. Better to copy the style of consumer- friendly toll-takers and bus drivers of continental Europe, who protest by refusing to take fares. For teachers that might mean splitting classes and extending the school day. It would entail more work, at least in the short run. But as pupils finished late and came home tired, parents - the key to a shift in educational funding - would soon be vocal in finding common cause with their children's hard-pressed teachers.