The joint campaign of industrial action announced this week by the NUT and the NASUWT over teachers' pay, pensions and working conditions will continue indefinitely and could be escalated should the government fail to yield to their demands, union leaders have warned.
Days after an overwhelming majority of NUT members voted in favour of strike and non-strike action on a range of issues, full details of the campaign, starting on 26 September, were announced. These include a crackdown on what the unions regard as "excessive" lesson observations by school leaders.
But despite pressure from other unions at the Trades Union Congress in Brighton this week, the NUT and the NASUWT snubbed calls for them to join a general strike. Both unions told TES they were minded to keep their powder dry until November, when education secretary Michael Gove is expected to announce his intentions regarding the possible introduction of performance-related and local pay, which they vehemently oppose.
Despite the legal limit of three hours of lesson observation per year being scrapped this month, the joint action instructs teachers to boycott all observations if their schools choose to exceed this total. This move puts the NUT and the NASUWT on a collision course with the Department for Education and the heads' unions, although newly qualified teachers and teachers undergoing capability proceedings are exempt from the action.
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said that the "unique" action tackles several problem areas not covered by previous campaigns. These include instructing teachers not to send emails outside of their directed working hours, not to complete more than one set of reports for each class per year and not to cooperate with practice inspections.
Also off-limits are observations by anyone without qualified teacher status, policies that have not been assessed and agreed with the unions and meetings outside school hours that are not within directed time. Members are instructed not to submit lesson plans to senior management, supervise pupils during lunch breaks or invigilate public exams, including GCSEs and Sats.
"We think the action short of strike action can contribute to the pressure on the secretary of state, at the same time as easing the workload pressure on teachers without damaging standards of education," said NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney. "We believe a reasonable head would not take issue with the action; we don't want there to be conflict with heads."
While expressing "sympathy" with those calling for a general strike, Ms Keates told TES that the NASUWT executive does not "believe the majority of our members would want us to strike at this moment in time". However, she said the unions could "intensify" their ongoing action.
"We are not defining an end date," Mr Courtney added. "The action is going on indefinitely; it is something we will assess as we go along."
Professor Howard Stevenson, deputy head of the University of Lincoln's Centre for Educational Research and Development, said the action could well prove to be the catalyst for reinvigorating the unions' flagging industrial campaign.
"Schools have become more managerialist places in recent years and many teachers have lost the confidence to say, 'No, I'm not going to do that,'" he said. "If it's effective, I think the action could well begin to restore the self-confidence of teachers to assert more stridently their own professional judgement."
Put to the vote
The results of the NUT ballot to protect teachers' pay and working conditions:
91.6% voted for action short of strike action.
82.5% voted for strike action.
228,831 NUT members were balloted.
27% of NUT members voted in its 2012 ballot.
40% of NUT members voted in its 2011 pensions ballot.
The unions have got competition
A competitor to teacher unions has been launched in a bid to capture the market of school staff disenfranchised by union politics and industrial action.
Edapt, which announced its arrival in the same week as the NUT ballot results (see above), has been founded by John Roberts (pictured), a former science and maths teacher at a Bolton secondary school. It will offer human resources and legal backup for teachers, while charging a similar membership fee to the classroom unions.
"Edapt has been created by teaching professionals for teaching professionals, and focuses on the needs of the individual," Mr Roberts said. "It provides independent professional support."
The organisation will also collate and interpret policy and research - but strictly, Mr Roberts insists, from a non-party-political perspective.
Mr Roberts expressed concern about the NUT and NASUWT action, warning that the list of 25 instructions on work-to-rule could leave teachers "confused and concerned".
"Teachers are excited about the new term and the impact they're going to have on their students with their creativity and ideas," he said. "There could be concern that this action might be something of a wet blanket, and stifle their enthusiasm."
But Professor Howard Stevenson, deputy head of the University of Lincoln's Centre for Educational Research and Development, said he was not convinced that Edapt would thrive in the marketplace.
"Being part of a union is about being part of a powerful professional identity for teachers," he said. "You don't see proud members of the AA (Automobile Association), which like Edapt is just there to help you if a problem occurs. I'm hugely pessimistic it will gain any kind of traction.
"The kind of issues affecting teachers are fundamentally political and require some political engagement."
The launch of Edapt comes as a report released last week by LKM Consulting found that industrial action has a polarising effect on members of teaching unions. Of those surveyed, 28 per cent said the right to strike was very important to them, while 38 per cent said it was not important at all. Just over half thought education had improved in the UK as a result of unions' work, while 77 per cent said they were satisfied with their union.