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Saturday, 17 March, 2001, 00:07 GMT
Warning over teacher action
By BBC education correspondent Mike Baker
If you were sitting in Downing Street planning the general election, which would frighten you more: The continuing spread of foot-and-mouth disease or the prospect of schools throughout the country sending pupils home for part of the week?
The foot-and-mouth outbreak is clearly disastrous for many rural parts of the country.
But the reality is that for most town, city and suburb dwellers the impact has, so far, been limited.
The industrial action threatened by teachers, however, could touch directly many more voters.
Just look at the list of places where teachers have already voted to take action: London, Doncaster, Leicester, Middlesbrough, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Southampton, Kent, Manchester and Reading.
In addition, staff in individual schools outside these areas have also voted for action.
If - and it is still a big "if" at this moment - teachers in all these areas start refusing to cover for absent colleagues then the impact could be enormous.
The teachers' unions are aware of the risk of upsetting parents, but believe they can persuade them that - in the long term - their action will benefit pupils more than it damages them in the short term.
This, though, is the big unknown for the Downing Street advisers to ponder.
Who is to blame?
If children are sent home will parents blame the teachers or the government?
But let us be clear about what the teachers' industrial action involves.
It is not - as journalistic short-hand would often have it - a strike.
The teachers are in effect working to the letter of their contract.
The idea is to protect themselves from unreasonable workload when they are asked to provide cover for missing colleagues.
The "contract" in question is the School Teacher' Pay and Conditions Document which says teachers cannot be required to cover for "unforeseen" absences after the third day.
It also says they cannot be asked to cover for "foreseen" absences - that is those known about two or more days in advance - if those absences will last for more than three days.
So it would appear teachers who refuse to cover in these circumstances would be doing no more than their contract permits.
However there is a lawyers' delight - otherwise known as a loophole - in the document.
'All reasonable steps'
This provides an exception to the contract when the employer has "exhausted all reasonable steps" in trying to find temporary staff to fill any vacancies.
In the current climate of severe shortages, most head teachers and education authorities would have little problem arguing they have already "exhausted all reasonable steps" trying to find teachers.
So this begins to look like a dispute which could go all the way to the courts.
Perhaps this was what the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, was hinting at when he said the government's response to industrial action "could surprise" the unions.
Despite talking tough in a newspaper interview at the start of the week, Mr Blunkett did not give any details of how he would respond if pupils were sent home in large numbers.
One theory in government circles is that the threats of industrial action are partly about internal union politics.
Specifically, they point out the tendency for the National Union of Teachers leadership to face demands from the more militant delegates at its Easter annual conference for a tougher line on industrial action.
These conspiracy theorists argue that it suits the NUT leadership to go into Easter already committed to a form of action which is more benign than the tougher action likely to be demanded by some delegates.
So far, it has suited the unions to escalate this dispute very slowly.
This may be a wise tactic: it is easier for the government to give ground ahead of the action than once children are being sent home.
This raises the question of what it would take to get the unions to call off their action?
Their first demand was for an admission from government that the teacher shortage was serious.
This they have now had, not least in the millions of pounds allocated last week to recruitment and retention.
So what else do the unions want? A key demand is for an independent inquiry into the problems that are causing the shortage.
For the unions this means a new look at pay and working hours.
In particular they want shorter hours and more non-teaching time, along the lines of the recently agreed teachers' contract in Scotland.
But how can the government deliver a shorter working week when there are not enough teachers to go around now?
Any promises of change now could only be delivered in the longer term.
This is the heart of the problem: any serious action to boost teacher recruitment and retention will take a year, or more, to have an effect.
So it is hard to see an early end to this dispute.
That is why the Downing Street advisers need to keep as close an eye on the teachers' dispute as on foot-and-mouth.
Mike Baker welcomes your comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.
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