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Friday, 13 April, 2001, 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK
Teachers demand shorter week
doug mcavoy
Doug McAvoy: Appeal for "dignified" debate
By Sean Coughlan at the NUT conference in Cardiff

A shorter working week will be demanded by teachers gathering at the annual conference of the biggest teachers' union.

The National Union of Teachers, having suspended its industrial action over teacher shortages, is set to debate whether to join other teachers' unions in threatening further action in support of a 35-hour maximum working week.

At present, the union says, a survey shows that two thirds of teachers are working at least 56 hours a week - and this is a major factor in driving people out of the profession and worsening staff shortages.

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And it says the survey, carried out by Mori, shows that 17% of teachers are working more than 16 hours at home.

The union also published information from people who had recently left teaching - with workload cited by 82% as their main reason for wanting to change careers.

The joint teachers' union motion, already adopted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, calls for an independent inquiry into teachers' workload, with the aim of gaining a substantial improvement to hours, pay and conditions for teachers in England and Wales - similar to those already promised to teachers in Scotland.

This will include the demand for a maximum 35-hour working week and more time protected in the school week for marking and preparation of lessons.

Threat to pupils played down

But the union's general secretary, Doug McAvoy, offered an olive branch to the government, in suggesting that the threat of a dispute in the autumn over workload would be lifted if the talks over teacher shortages, set to begin later this month, were sufficiently far-reaching.

And playing down any threat of adverse affect to pupils, he said that "working to an overall limit will not cause teachers to walk away from pupils".

Anticipating calls from militant delegates for a more confrontational approach with government, he said that if the conference overturned the joint union motion on workload it would leave the NUT in the untenable position of remaining outside the dispute.

With the general election looming, attention will also be focused on the reception accorded to the Education Secretary David Blunkett, who will be speaking at the conference on Saturday.

Headline fears

Many of the motions to be debated are hostile to the Labour government's education policy and at previous conferences left-wing delegates have given visiting ministers a rough ride.

Last year, his ministerial colleague Estelle Morris was heckled by teachers angered by the government's imposition of performance-related pay. Some left the hall.

And the union's moderate leadership, seeking to use the conference to assert teachers' right to be treated as professionals, will be concerned that the headlines will be stolen by walk-outs and protests.

With a view to how the conference can damage the public image of teachers, Doug McAvoy has written in this year's conference programme of the need for "dignified" debate, seeking to head-off the kind of coverage that accuses teacher delegates of behaving like disruptive pupils.

Among the areas in which government policy is most likely to come under attack is its green paper on reforming secondary schools, with the union likely to reject the proposals for more specialist schools.

Left-right gameplay

As well as arguing with the government, the conference also has a tradition of intricate and acrimonious in-fighting, which in recent years has seen the union's more moderate leadership seeking to outmanoeuvre a highly vocal left wing.

This has seen the leadership often talking tough, but in practice proposing a more pragmatic approach to protest, preferring negotiation and legal action to strike threats.

But the union militants, as in previous years, can be expected to call for a more confrontational approach.

However Mr McAvoy might already have gone some way towards outflanking his more militant critics.

With his announcing on the eve of the conference that the action over teacher shortages had been suspended, it will be difficult for the left to renew a debate on the subject or to escalate the dispute.

And by offering a take-it-or-leave-it joint motion, agreed with other unions, on action over teachers' workload, it will be difficult for militants to derail the moderates' motion without being seen to scupper the whole campaign over the 35-hour week.

The BBC's Mike Baker
"60% of teachers in England and Wales now work at least 56 hours a week"
See also:

09 Apr 01 | UK Education
10 Apr 01 | UK Education
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