Pay and Conditions - Strike plans herald autumn of discontent

Headteachers plead for less hostility between unions and government

Stephen Exley

Education in England and Wales are likely to be hit by the worst period of disruption from industrial action in almost 30 years, with the prospect of teachers and college lecturers joining forces on the picket line this term.

As teachers returned to work this week, the NUT and NASUWT teaching unions were gearing up for regional strikes over pay, pensions and working conditions, as well as a national walkout in November. This means that tens of thousands of teachers will strike twice within the space of two months, for the first time since the rolling action over pay of the 1980s.

College lecturers who are members of the University and College Union are due to vote on strike action over pay in October and could coordinate action with their counterparts in schools.

The strikes in schools, confirmed by the unions yesterday, are expected to close thousands of institutions, with many more likely to experience serious disruption. The last national strikes, over pensions, took place two years ago, but the scale of this term's action is expected to have a greater impact on schools.

"It's the biggest campaign of industrial action by the teaching unions since the mid 1980s," said Howard Stevenson, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Nottingham. "They've been deliberately building it up slowly to make sure they have strong support from their membership. This is high stakes for (education secretary) Michael Gove."

But headteachers - despite having some sympathies with the classroom unions - have criticised the move to strike, and what they view as a "provocative" reaction from government.

"There is a pressing need for a less adversarial relationship between government and the unions," said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said school leaders were becoming used to managing the effects of industrial action but do not appreciate the pressure from government to keep schools open at all costs.

"They are fairly phlegmatic about it, and their goal and duty will be to keep their schools open," he said. "However, there's often quite provocative advice from the government about how to do that - by bringing in outside private companies to run activities, for example."

According to the Department for Education, a one-day strike in the North West in June shut 1,241 schools - two-fifths of the region's total - and significant numbers were only partially open.

NUT national executive member Martin Powell-Davies claimed that backing for the action was growing among teachers. "We saw strong support for our strike in the North West," he said. "I see no reason why there won't be solid support for the next strikes. The momentum is building. The more unions we have out, the stronger the effect will be for everybody."

Despite the scale of the planned action, there appears to be little chance that it will have any direct impact on big issues such as performance- related pay, which comes into effect this academic year.

Views are mixed on the scale of the support for strikes. Edapt, which offers union services without political campaigning, said it is signing up as many as 25 new teachers a day, in part because of their reluctance to take industrial action.

Professor Stevenson argued that the unions need to be clearer in conveying the aim of the strike to members. "Striking involves a sacrifice, and teachers are going to want to know what they will get in return for that sacrifice and whether the strike has a realistic chance of success," he said.

But he added that he would "challenge the assumption" that taking industrial action will turn the public against teachers. "Parents may be annoyed by the strike, but if they see the government can do something about it, and it hasn't, they will blame the government," he said.

Activists are expected to target the annual gathering of the Trades Union Congress, which starts in Bournemouth on Sunday, to call on other public sector unions to join the action.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "It is disappointing that the NUT and NASUWT are striking over the government's measures to allow headteachers to pay good teachers more. In a recent poll, 61 per cent of respondents supported linking teachers' pay to performance and 70 per cent either opposed the strikes or believed that teachers should not be allowed to strike at all."

Taking action

Week beginning 30 September: one-day teachers' strike in East Anglia, East Midlands, West Midlands, Yorkshire, Humberside and parts of Wales

Week beginning 14 October: one-day teachers' strike in the North East, London, South East, South West and parts of Wales

Late November: national strike.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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