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Monday, 22 January, 2001, 15:17 GMT
London ballot over teacher shortage
Teachers' unions say there are serious staff shortages
The second biggest teachers' union in England is to hold its first area-wide ballot on action over teacher shortages in the worst-affected area: Greater London.

Some 10,700 members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) will next month be asked to vote on whether they should refuse to cover for vacancies.

It could mean some schools in the capital would be forced onto four-day weeks.

The Department for Education said the union's "irresponsible" action would damage children's education.

But the NASUWT called this a "parrot-like" response which failed to address the fact that pupils' schooling was already being hit by shortages.

Three days limit

It is meeting the largest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers, on Thursday to discuss joint action.

The general secretary of the NASUWT, Nigel de Gruchy, stressed that the London ballot was not about a strike.

"We intend to abide by the spirit of the teacher's contract," he said.

"Teachers are only supposed to cover for vacancies and absences known in advance in 'exceptional' circumstances, where the employer cannot find a supply teacher.

"The problem is the 'exceptional' has now become the norm. The action will, therefore, focus on refusing to cover for vacancies and for any absence known in advance to last longer than three days.

"Members will continue to cover for up to three days for unforeseen absences."

Higher bonuses

Mr de Gruchy said the action would serve to expose the true extent of a problem which schools were afraid of mentioning for fear it would damage their standing with parents.

Ballots for similar action have already been authorised in individual schools in Barnet, Kent, Surrey, Hertfordshire and Sandwell.

A Department for Education spokesman said the government had asked the School Teachers Review Body, which is due to make this year's recommendations on pay next week, to look at higher bonuses for teachers working in expensive areas.

London schools' particular problems in finding and keeping staff are widely acknowledged to be due in large part to higher housing and living costs in the capital.

Overseas staff

On Friday, the School Standards Minister, Estelle Morris, announced proposals to make it easier for teachers from countries including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to teach in England.

But Mr de Gruchy said: "For the last five years we have warned governments and the School Teachers' Review Body that the London education service was only just keeping its head above water by relying upon a constant flow of young but itinerant teachers from places like Australia, New Zealand and latterly South Africa.

"Unfortunately, the government and the review body have ignored our arguments that teaching needed to be made a much more attractive profession across the board by tackling the problems of low pay, poor conditions, excessive workload and bureaucracy, coupled with difficult pupil behaviour in many schools.

"Flying in emergency teams of teachers from distant parts of the globe is no way to tackle these fundamental problems."

'More widespread' - survey

Meanwhile the teacher shortage is affecting schools across England, a survey suggests.

According to the Press Association, 16 local education authorities outside London have reported staff shortages.

There were also indications of low level shortages affecting parts of Scotland and Wales. But in Northern Ireland there were no reports of any recruitment difficulties.

And the survey found that councils believed a pay rise for teachers would make the biggest impact in tackling the problem.

But the survey does not provide a complete picture as only about 15% of education authorities in England responded to it.

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See also:

19 Jan 01 | Education
Rules eased for overseas teachers
18 Jan 01 | Education
Teacher shortage a 'national crisis'
13 Jan 01 | Correspondents
Truth about teacher shortages
08 Jan 01 | Education
Four-day week fears 'exaggerated'
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