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Support staff threat to workload deal

Unison activists look set to scupper agreement as anger mounts over redundancies. Jon Slater reports

ACTIVISTS in the largest support staff union are preparing to scuttle the agreement to cut teachers' workload, leaving the Government's education policy in disarray.

Eight motions to next week's annual Unison conference refer to the deal, which relies on support staff taking greater responsibilities and, in particular, for teaching assistants to take classes. Union leaders admit privately there is a real chance they could be defeated by left-wingers and forced to pull out of the workload agreement.

They are so concerned at the prospect that they have appealed to David Miliband, the school standards minister, to help them by giving ground on the key issue of term-time working.

A rejection of the agreement by Unison would deal a heavy blow to Education Secretary Charles Clarke who is already struggling to overcome the school funding crisis.

With the National Union of Teachers, the largest teaching union, already opposed to the deal, Mr Clarke could be forced to reopen negotiations on workload.

Measures in the current deal intended to ease the burden on teachers would also be put at risk.

These include the transfer of 25 tasks to support staff this autumn and one-day-per-fortnight preparation time promised to teachers by September 2005.

The motions regarding school support staff and the workload deal are on the agenda for Monday morning's education debate.

Support staff are angry that funding problems are leading to redundancies while they are expected to take on extra responsibilities, and left-wingers have turned the issue into their cause cel bre.

Opponents of the deal also share the NUT's view that the deal will result in "teaching on the cheap".

Unison signed the deal in January, hoping that it would lead to improved pay and conditions for its members. But three months after the initial March deadline, the union has yet to reach a final agreement with employers about a new career structure, let alone the more thorny issues of pay and conditions of service.

Christina McAnea, who negotiated the deal for Unison, said: "It is all up in the air. The funding issue has hardened opposition.

* Strike action hit 51 schools in London this week as Unison pressed home its claim for London weighting of pound;4,000 a year for all support staff in the capital.

The union estimated that a "significant number" of the schools in 11 selected London boroughs were closed completely by the week-long action and that most were forced to cancel some lessons.

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