Moves to link teachers' pay more closely to performance have met with massive opposition from teaching unions in England, sparking plans for strikes in the autumn term.
But a survey published this week revealed much stronger support among the general public for the controversial proposal, with 61 per cent agreeing that teachers' pay should be influenced by their performance rather than simply time served.
More worryingly for the unions, 36 per cent of more than 1,700 people surveyed by Populus said that they did not support the planned strikes, while 34 per cent said that teachers provide an "essential service" so should not be allowed to strike, in the same way that police officers are banned from taking industrial action. A slightly smaller proportion (29 per cent) said that they supported strikes over pay, pensions and working conditions.
Education secretary Michael Gove called on the NUT and NASUWT unions - which are also participating in ongoing industrial action requiring teachers not to tackle 25 tasks, such as responding to emails outside working hours - to call off the strikes. "It will damage children's education, disrupt parents' lives and undermine the respect in which the teaching profession deserves to be held," he said. "The public does not support strike action and very few teachers actually voted for it."
But NUT general secretary Christine Blower cited a separate poll by YouGov in which 60 per cent of parents backed a national pay system, with only 25 per cent agreeing that teachers' pay should be decided on a school-by-school basis.
She said that the government's proposals "are about cutting the salaries of the majority of teachers, not rewarding them for the work they do". "Parents and the general public are very aware of the pressures that teachers are under and are also very aware that it is only when the profession feels they truly have no alternative to protect teachers and defend education that they will take this course of action," she added.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said that the strikes would not be necessary if Mr Gove was willing to engage in "genuine dialogue" with the unions.
Populus also found that 43 per cent of those surveyed said teachers' performance in annual appraisals should be the most important factor in setting their pay. This was followed by their students' exam performance (29 per cent), the number of professional qualifications held (11 per cent), length of service (8 per cent) and parity with other teachers (7 per cent).