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Delegates to lobby for action zone boycott;Union Conferences

Education, education, education? The unions want to see results, results, results, Frances Rafferty reports.

This Easter, the Government will see its flagship policy of education action zones - the so-called test-beds of next century's education system - come under attack from the teacher unions.

The leadership of the National Union of Teachers has put down an emergency motion calling for action, including strike action, where education action zone decisions threaten pay and conditions. But NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy acknowledges he will come under pressure from delegates to go further and boycott the zones.

He believes he has won assurances from Education Secretary David Blunkett to make the zones more acceptable. Private companies will not be able to make a profit from providing education, and local authorities will still have powers over the schools in the zones, for example over admissions and will be allowed to draft in extra governors.

Mr McAvoy said: "What conference will have to grapple with is whether it agrees with the executive's approach, to seek to influence the bids and to encourage local authorities to enter a bid where outside agencies have shown interest."

The union believes the zones will be a way to test out new working conditions for teachers, involving longer days and weekend work. Mr McAvoy said: "Teachers will be tempted by the promise of extra money for doing more, for example running homework and Saturday clubs. But I fear disapplication (suspension) of the teachers' pay and conditions agreement will mean more for some and not for all and not necessarily more for ever. Experience shows that certain aspects of the package remain, but the relative improvement in pay declines over the years."

Mr McAvoy is prepared to look at changes to the contract, but says this can only be done through negotiation. He supports new moves by Graham Lane, chair of the Local Government Association, the teachers' employers, to restore some form of direct negotiation. His union has lost confidence in the School Teachers' Review Body and is rattled by hints made by the standards minister Stephen Byers over the need to change conditions.

He said: "Under the present system the Government advised the review body to introduce advanced skilled teachers. Nobody supported the idea. But once recommended, they were in place. What is to stop the Government recommending longer hours or a longer working year to the review body next time?" When Mr Blunkett speaks to the conference Mr McAvoy hopes he gets a better reception than three years ago in Blackpool when he was jostled by activists, to the great embarrassment of the union.

Mr McAvoy said: "I hope conference delegates will look at the balance sheet and ask themselves whether the prospects for teachers are more promising.

"There is a different attitude to teachers. The naming and shaming was very bad and staging of the pay award was very bad, but the commitment to lowering class size is a sea change.

"The additional money is totally inadequate, but it means the end of outside toilets, something this union has campaigned against. The slimming down of the primary curriculum is another signal of better things for the future. I'm sure the teacher in the classroom will not have noticed conditions much better at school level yet, but I hope delegates will be able to say, yes a lot more needs to be done but the Government has made a good start."

Conference will be calling for the right not to attend staff meetings more than once a week and for ballots over class size, ending cover, ensuring lunch breaks and a 35-hour week. Mr McAvoy will be criticised for agreeing to the national capability procedures to speed up the sacking of teachers. A Lewisham motion calls for the union to withdraw support from the procedure.

The union's leadership will support action, but not strikes, to cut down on teachers' bureaucratic tasks. It has also called for a special conference to review salary structures.z Ian Murch, former NUT treasurer and member of the Left, is scathing of the Government's relationship with the union. He said: "Doug spent years courting people in the Labour party hoping for influence when they finally came to power, but found there is very little on the table for us. We are now reduced to putting up the bullets for the Liberal Democrats to fire.

"Every time we think we have made progress with David Blunkett, Stephen Byers comes round the back with a new attack."

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