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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 09:05 GMT
Teachers' unions debate 'peace deal'
classroom scene
Teachers would get extra pay for extra work
A deal designed to put an end to teachers' action over staff shortages in England is being considered by union representatives.

Officers of the National Union of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) meet on Wednesday and will discuss the offer, which involves compensating teachers who cover for absent colleagues.

I hope that this is the first step towards an improved contract for teachers

NUT leader Doug McAvoy

Local government leaders - the employers for most teachers - have said that if the two big classroom unions call off their industrial action, they would discuss a move to pay teachers an hourly rate - perhaps 20 - or give them time off in lieu.

The employers have also offered to open negotiations on drawing up new conditions of service for teachers. This is another of the unions' grievances.

Initial reaction from the unions and from the government - which would have to sanction such a deal - was positive.

'Very interesting'

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT said the Local Government Association's (LGA) suggestion was "very interesting" and said he would recommend that members responded positively.

Nigel de Gruchy
Nigel de Gruchy: "Interesting proposals"
"The workload problem remains. Proposals for wider talks on the contract represent potential breakthrough. No such talks have been held for the last 16 years."

The NUT general secretary, Doug McAvoy, said the employers' approach would be considered by his union's executive on Thursday.

"I hope that this is the first step towards an improved contract for teachers which will remove the demands made of teachers and make teaching more attractive," he added.

Ballots going on

At present teachers cannot be paid overtime or given time off to replace the extra hours they are asked to put in.

No discussions between employers and unions can or should take place until the action is called off

Department for Education
Members of the two unions, the NUT and the NASUWT, are being balloted on "cover to contract" action to highlight the issue of teacher shortages.

Their action involves not covering for staff vacancies beyond one day for long-term vacancies - including unfilled posts - and three days for unforeseen absences such as sickness.

So far teachers in 10 local education authority areas have voted to take action. Ballots are going on in eight other areas.

The actual impact has been minimal, but is likely to grow as time passes.

Meeting arranged

As the action began last week, the LGA was sending out a warning that any teachers who did refuse to cover could have their pay docked.

Now it has changed tack and is offering the olive branch of extra money and new talks.

Graham Lane
Graham Lane: "Hopefully we can see children not being sent home"
The LGA's education chairman, Graham Lane, said there had been informal soundings over the past few days which had resulted in his sending letters to the unions setting out the ideas.

He was pleased they had responded positively. Mr Lane said the NASUWT had already arranged to meet him next Saturday.

"Hopefully we can see children not being sent home while we complete the arrangements," he said.

He was against the idea of an independent inquiry into teachers' conditions, however - not least because of the length of time it would take.

"We want something we can put to ministers in the middle of May," he said.

The LGA would meet the unions and produce either a joint report or its own report on the outcome of their talks.

Department demands end to action

The Department for Education said it had always wanted to see "local, innovative solutions" to teacher shortages. Schools had been given extra money to back this up.

"If heads and schools decide to use those funds to make ex-gratia payments to reward teachers who are doing a lot more cover than their contractual requirement, that is certainly a practical way in which they could use the money," the department said in a statement.

It said no discussions between employers and unions on teaches' conditions should take place until the action was called off.

If the action were stopped, the department would be willing "to respond positively" to the recommendation by the independent pay review body that there be an independent evaluation of teachers' workload.

Schools could save money

Under the LGA scheme, head teachers would have the flexibility to offer their own staff extra money for taking on extra classes or other work that would normally be done by absent colleagues, such as setting and marking homework.

Although this would cost the school, it would be cheaper than the current alternative - getting in a supply teacher through an outside agency.

The LGA thinks this could actually save schools money, as well as the inconvenience of having to contact agencies in an effort to find suitable staff - an increasingly difficult task in many areas.

These are signs of possible peace in what has been an acrimonious dispute, with Mr Blunkett accusing teachers of intending to "abandon" children, and "damage their life chances".

Before the LGA offer was made, Mr de Gruchy wrote to him complaining about his "emotional over-reaction" to the union action.

He said Mr Blunkett's "open incitement" to employers not only to make excessive pay deductions but to sue individual teachers for participating in lawfully balloted industrial action, "betrays a vicious anti-trade union attitude which is reminiscent of the worst days of Tory rule".

The BBC's Mike Baker
"The two unions who voted for industrial action have welcomed the proposal"
See also:

15 Mar 01 | Scotland
Teacher shortages predicted
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