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Open season on Mrs Shephard

Frances Rafferty previews the Easter conferences of the teacher unions.

The boycott may be off, but this Easter's union conferences will offer little hope of a quiet time for the Education Secretary, with all three big teacher associations voting on motions to take industrial action over class size.

Gillian Shephard is due to speak to all the unions, except the National Union of Teachers, which, despite general secretary Doug McAvoy's wishes, voted not to invite her. With the concerns about school budget cuts and the Government's failure to fund the teachers' pay award, Mrs Shephard can expect to face a disgruntled workforce.

The moderate Association for Teachers and Lecturers will be voting next week on a motion, which has the leadership's support, to ballot for industrial action, on a local or national level if necessary, if large class sizes create excessive workload. The same motion advises members not to take sole responsibility for more than two consecutive days for more than 31 pupils or 29 in a mixed-age class.

As The TES went to press the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers leadership was working on a motion calling for action. Nigel de Gruchy, the union's general secretary, said because the problem may only affect one class in a school it was difficult to work out a formula. Graham Terrell, the union's spokesman, said: "We have to have effective action otherwise it is worse than none at all."

The spread of issues; including child abuse allegations, concerns about Office for Standards in Education inspections, Section 11 money, special needs and their funding are reflected in motions on the agenda of all three main teacher unions, often broadly in the same terms. But while this gives an impression of unity of purpose, nothing could be further from the truth.

The recent rally and lobby of Parliament about education cuts even led to the unions falling out, with the others accusing the National Union of Teachers of trying to turn the protests into its own show.

According to Michael Barber, professor of education at Keele University, the unions are more divided than since the end of the 1980s, despite the successful boycott which showed their strength. The pressure of market forces on membership numbers has driven a wedge between them, with the NASUWT boasting an increased membership of 14,500 and the ATL claiming a steady increase while the NUT was not giving much away. The current Career Teacher, an NASUWT newspaper, prints a league table of the unions and leaders most often quoted in the media. No prizes for guessing who comes top of the soundbite pops. (see Diary, page 19).

It has been the fall-out of the boycott, and the differences between the unions over when to drop it that has opened wounds. The NASUWT and the NUT have always been the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the teacher union movement despite both being affiliated to the Trades Union Congress.

The NUT does not want a pay review body, the NASUWT does (so too the ATL). But a disagreement about moderated teacher assessment is developing into a serious split.

The NUT has had its own problems this year. A challenge to the leadership from Mary Hufford leading to a narrow victory for Mr McAvoy followed by another battle between Ms Hufford, Steve Sinnott and Marian Darke for the deputy has left a number of bruises. Although it is a good result for Mr McAvoy, who at least now has a popular deputy he is prepared to work with, the timing of the contests made it difficult for the contestants to be seen to be wobbling on the boycott action. At Blackpool the usual "bloodbath" is predicted by one NUT official over a motion arguing to resume the boycott.

Nigel de Gruchy believes that his union's decision to end the action in January 1994 meant he was able to steal a march on the other unions during the so-called "snuggling up" phase when the NASUWT sought negotiations with the Government.

Mr de Gruchy claims his union brought about the decision to bring in external marking of the test scripts, thus reducing workload. The other unions are concerned that this has led to fewer resources being available for moderated teacher assessment. Both the NUT and ATL favour teacher assessment, but the NASUWT does not. When the NUT eventually dropped the boycott in January, following a number of months of in-fighting, it saved face by getting an agreement from Gillian Shephard to have a Dearing-style review of testing and assessment. The roadshows have already started, and have been described as similar to the curriculum roadshows but with a smaller lunch.

The NASUWT's response has been to threaten to resume the boycott if teacher assessment is bumped up. Mr de Gruchy, the Grand Old Duke of York among the union leaders, also had some difficulties marching his men (and women) down the hill again when he decided to end the boycott, but managed to remain unchallenged for the general secretaryship this year. Current trade union legislation requires leaders to be re-elected every five years.

However this week's TES letter page contains unusually public criticism of Mr de Gruchy, claiming the union has done very little to challenge employment law penalising many of his members (see page 21).

But all three big unions can be criticised for not coming to terms with fundamental changes within the profession. The School Teachers' Review Body in its report this year pointed out the dramatic increase (almost a doubling in 10 years) of part-time employees. Of these more than half (52 per cent) are on fixed-term contracts.

Local management has also led to a dramatic change in the composition of the staffroom, with a host of bursars, administrators and classroom assistants among the non-teaching staff contributing to the coffee and tea fund. While union leaders will say they are aware of these fact, it can be argued than none has seriously addressed the implications for the service.

The Secondary Heads Association kicks off the Easter fun at the University of Warwick this weekend. Members may be interested to read an NASUWT motion that calls for headteachers to be democratically elected by the teaching staff of the school.

SHA is further than ever away from a merger with its rival headteacher union, the National Association of Head Teachers.

Gillian Shephard and Labour's David Blunkett will be speaking at the conference, which is not a policy-making forum. Russell Clarke, SHA's assistant general secretary, said the Education Secretary can expect a polite but hardly rapturous response from his members currently battling with budget cuts.

He said that a letter written before the budget, leaked to The TES, had shown she was batting for the teachers and it was the Treasury to blame for not funding the pay award. Others think she could have batted harder.

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