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Heads' threat to deal

Conference vote on workforce agreement sparks inter-union row. William Stewart reports

A furious war of words between unions has been triggered by a threat from heads to withdraw from the workforce agreement.

In a dramatic debate at the National Association of Head Teachers conference in Cardiff, grassroots members defied their leadership and presented ministers with an ultimatum: fund the agreement directly and adequately or we pull out.

The threat led to an immediate angry response from the unions who have signed the deal. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, accused the NAHT of putting a gun to their head.

Funding concerns, she said, should have been discussed between themselves.

Chris Keates, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said heads were using funding as an excuse not to implement the agreement.

She condemned the NAHT's position as "arrogant, untenable and hypocritical".

Responding to the accusations, David Hart, NAHT general secretary, said:

"Whether the NASUWT likes it or not the fact remains that the budget position in this country remains extremely precarious."

The shock vote has undermined what was seen as a model partnership between government, unions and employers. And ministers are now at odds with the biggest heads' union as well as the National Union of Teachers which refused to sign the agreement.

At last weekend's conference in Cardiff, NAHT members ignored the national executive by voting through a motion saying that staying in the agreement should be dependent on the Government announcing "clear, adequate and direct" funding by December 31.

During a passionate debate members said they feared they would be unable to fund teachers' entitlement to half-a-day-a-week preparation time, due in September 2005. Primary heads, 85 per cent of whom the NAHT represents, say it will be harder for them as they do not have the staffing flexibility of secondary schools.

Sid Willcocks, head of Epiphany primary, Bournemouth, who has lost half his classroom assistants because of funding problems, said: "We don't want jam tomorrow we want bread today."

Mr Hart said his national council would assess the three-year funding deal expected in July alongside autumn announcements and decide whether to stay in the agreement in the new year.

Funding for the agreement would need to go directly to schools, not via local councils, but it would not have to be ring-fenced, something ruled out by schools minister David Miliband at the conference.

Many, including Mr Hart, have argued that withdrawal would make little difference as the changes are statutory. But he said it would be dangerous for the threat not to be taken seriously.

The deal to reduce workload was signed by employers, Government and every major school union except the NUT in January 2003.

A government spokeswoman said it was committed to implementing the agreement with all its partners, including the NAHT.

News 15; Leader 22

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