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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Season of discontent for teachers
conference hall
Teaching unions are putting pressure on ministers
As the annual Easter teachers' union conferences end, what is the mood in the profession?

Activists in the NASUWT teachers' union who had gone to their annual conference by train departed on Friday in a climate of militancy.

But not their own: Industrial action within the Arriva rail company meant they had to make alternative travel arrangements...

Perhaps it brought home to them the reality of the threats of industrial action - in one case "up to and including strike action" - they themselves had voted through during the week in Scarborough.

Of course we have come to expect that sort of rhetoric at this time of year.

conference delegates
A government spokesman, asked about the parting swipe about "self-serving" politicians made by the retiring general secretary, Nigel de Gruchy, observed: "We are all used to intemperate remarks at the Easter conferences."

Similarly at the National Union of Teachers conference, the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, faced heckling and a walkout by some delegates.

But then, the NUT "bear-pit" is traditionally more militant - to the point where Ms Morris had threatened in advance that she would stop accepting conference invitations from the unions if they didn't sit up straight and behave.

Expectations raised

The NUT ended its conference threatening industrial action on six or seven fronts.

But how real is that mood within the wider teaching profession?

If the conferences are any guide - and the delegates are, after all, teachers as well as activists - observers have noticed a palpable sense of discontent this year.

It has been a long time since I did history at school but I do recall that revolutions were prone to happen within rising economic trends.

People's expectations were raised then either were not met quickly enough or were thwarted.

And so it is with the teachers. Take a hardy annual of the union agenda papers: Pupil behaviour, or rather misbehaviour.

As someone reminded a conference this week, the Greek philosopher Socrates complained that his pupils were not as well behaved as they had been when he was a lad.

That was about 2,400 years ago. Let us not get diverted into the Creationism debate here, but had the trend continued, the speaker pointed out, we would have "retro-evolved" into single cell amoebas by now.


The outgoing Nigel de Gruchy - outgoing in both senses of the word - told his union's members he had been complaining about the behaviour of pupils ever since he arrived in England in the late 1960s.

"Thirty years later Tony Blair catches up with me and we now have zero tolerance."

If that does not produce a real change, teachers will feel they have been betrayed.

And let us not forget that the education secretary's proposed toughening up of parenting orders was first suggested by her predecessor a year ago.

One issue more than any other has teachers on the boil: Their workload

Any head teacher knows that if a school does something once parents regard it the following year as "a tradition" which you change at your peril.

So it is now traditional for education secretaries to tell teachers' conferences they will get tough with unruly parents.

But there is a precedent for the sense of betrayal.

Even the head teachers' unions were threatening a campaign of disobedience over the government's handling of its performance-related pay scheme.

In a nutshell, teachers say they were promised something which the government is now failing to deliver.

Late on Friday came word that the heads and the government had done a deal.

The news broke too late for the teachers' conferences - strangely - but first indications are that their suspicions remain.

Merit pay

Education ministers liked to tell everyone - especially potential recruits to teaching - how much "good, experienced classroom teachers" could now earn under new Labour.

Having persuaded the profession to sign up for the scheme, the complaint is they are now not funding it properly in its second year.

So not all the teachers who merit pay rises are going to get them.

Perhaps more money will still be found - that is what is being suggested - but in a way the damage has been done already.


But one issue more than any other has teachers on the boil: Their workload.

Anyone who knows a teacher knows the long hours they put in, and how the long holidays are not quite all they appear to be.

Again, nothing new in that.

What brought matters to a head was the joint "cover to contract" action - a work to rule - last year by members of the two bigger unions.

The summer term will prove critical

They followed up with a joint resolution of all the classroom unions demanding that something be done.

The government set up an independent review of workload and a joint working group with the unions to decide what should be done about it.

So again, expectations have been raised very high by the government's adopting the teachers' complaint and promising to address it.

The summer term will prove critical.

First will come the recommendations of the review body which advises ministers on teachers' pay and conditions in England and Wales.


The government has now conceded the principle that teachers should get guaranteed time to prepare lessons and mark pupils' work.

But what it will not give - and this is the big difference from last year's deal for teachers in Scotland - is an overall limit to the working week.

The unions say it is logical nonsense to have one without the other - what would be the point of having guaranteed preparation time each day if in practice it was at, say, 8pm.

Ministers say there are measures that could be put around the guarantee to make it work.

The two sides are still a long way apart.

Secondly, the money has to be found to make any new contract work.

Teachers might accept that Estelle Morris probably is arguing for more money from the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in the government's spending review - the one that is all about "health, health, health".

But if it is not forthcoming, they are hardly likely to say "Oh well, never mind, you did your best."

The votes for industrial action have made that plain.

Of course, activists voting for action is one thing, ordinary teachers taking it is another.

But there is one other crucially different backdrop to this year's conference season: Teachers have actually been on strike this year.

NUT members in the greater London area walked out for a day over their cost-of-living allowances.

There was a curiously low-key build-up to the action. But when the day came, thousands of schools were closed.

And strikingly (as it were), the teachers seemed to enjoy a high degree of public support.

It gives a whole new flavour to the annual rhetoric.

See also:

03 Apr 02 | UK Education
15 Mar 02 | UK Education
04 Apr 02 | UK Education
14 Mar 02 | UK Education
14 Mar 02 | UK Education
23 Jan 02 | UK Education
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