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Fighting our corner

Doug McAvoy refutes the charge of indulging in megaphone diplomacy in the workload crusade.

I suppose the NUT should be grateful for The TES's somewhat off-centre editorial, "Clarke's sparks to be continued" (January 3 ). At least it highlighted the seriousness of the talks on teachers' contracts and workforce reform. Excessive workload, combined with a systemic lack of trust in teachers' professionalism, has driven thousands of teachers out. The question must be: have the talks addressed this problem?

Since teachers' negotiating rights were abolished 15 years ago, the current government has indeed to relearn how to negotiate. From the beginning we sought to negotiate, and to do so with all the proper mechanisms that entailed. Things have changed and positive talks are continuing, but surely the obvious lesson is that those negotiating rights should be restored with proper collective bargaining machinery.

Also, it would be a serious mistake if the Government on January 15 brought down an arbitrary guillotine on our or any other union's involvement in talks if there were still serious issues to be resolved or if the timescales for union decisions did not meet the deadline.

The review body's report on teachers' excessive workload describes its proposals as a coherent package. The NUT entered the talks on that package seeking changes to the contract which would be implemented as soon as possible in order to resolve the teacher shortage crisis. The Government has sought to link agreement on contractual change with the new roles for support staff, as envisaged by Estelle Morris. The Treasury's requirements for modernisation have overshadowed the talks. The proposed tie-in has made progress difficult and protracted.

The Government has control over changes to the contract because it is a statutory document. It does not have control over how schools implement it. That is the responsibility of schools and employers.

The Government has said it does not believe the roles of teachers and support staff are interchangeable and that it does not wish to see support staff substitute for teachers. But such verbal assurances are not enough. There must be legal means to enforce that statement.

In fact, the machinery exists in the 2002 Education Act, but the draft regulations only require headteachers to have in place a supervision system so that support staff can take whole classes. This is inadequate.

Currently these regulations do not prevent headteachers or governing bodies replacing teachers, including supply teachers, on cost grounds. They do not ensure that each school has a proper balance of teachers and support staff. They do not ensure consistency between those who are working towards qualified teacher status, such as those on employment-based routes, and others whom the Government envisages should take whole classes.

Talks on these tough issues are still going forward.

The Government has said that its new regulations will reflect any agreement. Yet, as with any changes to the pay and conditions document, we have yet to see how the regulations will take on board our concerns.

There has indeed been progress in the talks, particularly on changes to the teachers' contract. We are nearer than ever before to guaranteed marking and preparation time for all teachers. Bureaucratic burdens are to be removed. But ensuring that the Government recognises that there are problems which still have to be rectified, centring as they do on the future role of teachers and of support staff, is a teacher organisation's job. Our members expect that, just as they expect to be consulted. Our recent Warwick University study of members' views on school workforce reform was the only one of its kind. What comes over strongly is that teachers expect sufficient support staff to enable them to do their job but that they are deeply concerned about any proposals that might bring the skills and qualifications needed for teaching into jeopardy.

As The TES leader said itself: "Teaching assistants should assist, not replace teachers."

As for the accusation that the NUT is engaged in "megaphone diplomacy", it is worth remembering that the Government has sought to sell its deal in conferences involving all secondary heads throughout the country and that a pamphlet was sent to every teacher while the talks were continuing. That is fair game. I would also expect, however, that ministers understand that the union has its own mechanisms for putting its case.

Government criticism of the NUT for advertising in The TES signals a first: the editor accuses us of megaphone diplomacy and an education minister disagrees with our views being publicised through an advertisement. The NUT must be having some effect.

Doug McAvoy is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

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