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Monday, 1 April, 2002, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Teachers back action over hours
Britain's biggest teachers' union has voted unanimously for industrial action in support of a shorter working week.
And in a second challenge to the government, the National Union of Teachers' conference voted for a refusal to cover for absences, in a protest against teacher shortages.
However there are signs of a compromise in the dispute, with claims that the government is to reduce teachers' workload with an offer of protected time in the school day for marking and preparation.
The union appeared to have put itself on a collision course with government - with the threat of two industrial action campaigns in the autumn unless there are reductions in workload.
This rejects a stern warning from the Education Secretary Estelle Morris that teachers must not be dragged back into 1980s-style industrial conflicts.
And the education secretary was said to be "disappointed and furious" about the union's tough stance.
Such confrontations were "counter-productive" and threats "would not influence" any future decisions on workload, said a government spokesperson.
"Industrial action will damage the education of children and the reputation of teachers," said the spokesperson.
But the union's general secretary, Doug McAvoy, said that the votes were "a reminder to Gordon Brown that he cannot relegate education down his list of funding priorities".
Despite the confrontational language, it was later suggested that the government was ready to cut a deal, with the offer of five hours a week in school time for teachers' preparation and marking.
The Department for Education rejected such claims as "pure speculation".
Refusal to cover
The motion for industrial action over workload, in pursuit of a 35 hour week, is a joint campaign with other teachers' unions - with the threat of action having already been adopted by the moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers.
This will not mean teachers walking out of the classroom - but will introduce a work-to-rule.
It would see teachers refusing to cover for absent colleagues, attending meetings in the evening or helping with out-of-school activities or clubs.
There could also be a boycott of bureaucracy and paperwork.
The debate, in which a more radical amendment was rejected, heard claims that long hours and excessive paperwork were wrecking the personal lives of teachers.
And Jerry Glazier, presenting the motion, said that teacher shortages were directly linked to the culture of long hours.
"Classroom teachers are fed up waiting for improvements," said Kevin Courtney, who warned that staff would no longer tolerate such damaging working conditions.
Another speaker said that "teachers want their lives back, they want to get Sundays back".
An independent review of teachers' workload found that staff were working an average of 53 hours a week in term time.
And the alliance of teachers' unions in England and Wales is calling for a maximum of a 35-hour working week, similar to that agreed in Scotland.
A fixed maximum number of hours has already been rejected as "potty" and unworkable by the education secretary.
And she warned delegates on Saturday that she would not "do business" under the threat of strike action.
But the prospect of an offer of five hours a week of "professional time" could point the way towards a compromise.
And Doug McAvoy appeared confident that the forthcoming report of a review into teachers' workload - and negotiations that will follow - will lead to a deal.
And the gap between the two sides is already narrowing. Speaking at the conference, the education secretary said that 20% of teachers' current tasks could be taken on by other support staff.
This would cut the average working week to about 42 hours a week - only seven hours above the target set by the unions.
And Mr McAvoy made clear that there was flexibility over the 35-hour proposal, saying that a 38-hour week, and possibly higher, would be acceptable.
Conservative shadow education secretary Damian Green faced heckling as he used his conference speech to criticise the strike action plans.
Mr Green said he "did not approve of action that threatens the education of children and which could see them sent home from school".
But the Tory spokesman also expressed sympathy for teachers buckling under the weight of paperwork.
He told the conference that if primary head teachers had read all the documents sent to them in April, it would have taken them three and a half days.
Mr Green also attacked what he said was Ms Morris' "strident, lecturing tone".
"Teachers are not wreckers. They are hard-working professionals who are doing their best under increasingly difficult circumstances," he said.
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