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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 April, 2004, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
The strikes that never happen
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online at the NUT conference in Harrogate

There are threats of strikes closing schools ... but what really happens?

Here's a question. How many times has the National Union of Teachers held a national strike in the last decade?

It's the union's annual conference again this weekend and once again the headlines are being wheeled out about how teachers are on the verge of walking out the classroom.

The longstanding and canny leader of this rebellious crew, Doug McAvoy, is set to step down this summer. He's been in charge since the far-off days when Mrs Thatcher was prime minister and has become the public face of the biggest teachers' union.

And back to that question. How many national strikes have actually taken place in all those years since Mr McAvoy became general secretary?

Zero. There have been local disputes, plenty of negotiations, threats and bluff-calling, but despite all the impressions of a profession in perpetual revolt there hasn't been a single national strike.

This mis-match between how it appears to the public and how it is in reality owes almost everything to the over-heated, over-publicised Easter weekend of the NUT annual conference.

Slanging match

The traditional focus used to be the slanging match between union militants and whatever hapless education minister was sent to address the conference.

Doug McAvoy
There has not been a single national strike under Doug McAvoy

The Education Secretary Charles Clarke put a stop to this bunfight - always a favourite for the news bulletins and leader writers - by refusing to attend.

But the activists are still here. Like any political congregation these days, they're a greying bunch, with the conference as a whole getting visibly older.

Moderates accuse the radicals of having political views so out of date that they would qualify for preservation orders - and they say that the relentless negativity is not representative of the wider teaching profession.

And the militants' fixation with new Labour and Tony Blair does seem eerily reminiscent of their previous obsession with Mrs Thatcher.

In turn, the militants are champing at the bit with frustration that teachers do not use their strength of numbers more effectively.

And each year, with anger undiminished, the militants push for strike ballots. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose - but the outcome is usually the same - pretty much nothing happens, "chaos in the classroom" never really takes place.


Of course it's only fair to admit that journalists are complicit in this.

The conference is about pay and conditions, not pupils

News desks are desperate for anything to fill the pages on a weekend when nothing much else is happening - so they look to the NUT conference for some Easter action.

Except the NUT conference isn't an education conference - it's not about pupils and parents - it's about pay and conditions, demarcation and differentials, pensions and working hours.

So on the premise that conflict is drama, and in the absence of anything more interesting to a non-teaching audience, the micro-climates of the internal politics and improbable threats become elevated to a national story.

Motions opposing funding plans, tests, league tables or Ofsted become teachers "on a collision course with government".

And hold on .. those angry teachers are on the brink again.

Clarke snubs teachers' union
20 Feb 03  |  Education

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