Delegates united in their isolation

25th April 2003 at 01:00
Teachers' leader condemns the Government's 'creeping McCarthyism', which has left the biggest union out in the cold. William Stewart reports

The Easter weekend headlines of strikes, boycotts and more strikes may have a familiar ring. But this year was different. It was for real.

The National Union of Teachers has voted for a ballot to boycott national tests and industrial action on school funding and workload, with its leadership largely in agreement with the rank-and file.

General secretary Doug McAvoy got a standing ovation and even Conservative spokesman Damian Green won applause for holding a position on test targets closer to delegates than to ministers.

Mike Cunningham, a Workington teacher, proposed a vote of thanks to New Labour. Thanks to Government policies harmony was breaking out in the NUT.

It was the union's decision not to sign the workload deal with the Government, employers and eight other unions that precipitated the war of attrition. It now finds itself consigned to Siberia by the Department for Education and Skills and isolated from the other associations.

Speaking on Thursday, Charles Clarke's was expected to praise the NASUWT as a "professional" union which acts as a key partner in the workload agreement. By contrast he attacked the "posturing and sloganising" of the NUT claiming that "Nothing does more to depress the reputation and standing of teachers" than its annual conference.

At least Mr Clarke's decision to snub the event, and spend the weekend in Estonia en famille, spared us the usual spectacle of angry teachers heckling an education secretary.

Mr McAvoy set the tone at the beginning of the conference when he accused the Government of complacency and incompetence over funding and said the rival teaching unions were "mad" to sign the teacher workload agreement.

Delegates unanimously backed an emergency resolution demanding more cash and threatening industrial action, which may include strikes, in schools forced to cut jobs because of funding problems.

Baljeet Ghale, executive member, said 14 teachers were being made redundant in Coventry and 30 in Leeds, a situation being replicated in the rest of the country she said.

"It is criminal that at a time when more than pound;3 billion has been spent by this Government on engaging in a war not wanted by the majority of the country, we are having to make cuts in school funding," she said.

A second emergency motion from the executive asked delegates to vote for an anti-workload package including industrial action where the agreement led to a loss of teaching posts, limits to overall working and planning time and the withdrawal of co-operation when assistants took classes alone.

Against the leadership's wishes, delegates backed an amendment from the Left adding no-cover action, a refusal to submit plans and class-size action to the campaign.

Mr McAvoy later said he only expected the executive to sanction ballots for class-size action where classes were doubled up or increased because of the workload agreement. He said the existing rules on covering for absent colleagues were sufficient.

Mr McAvoy ended conference with a blistering attack on the Government's "sinister" move to isolate the NUT because of its refusal to sign the workload agreement. A leaked DfES email said civil servants had to check before they were allowed to contact the NUT.

"Democracy is not just about voting, it is about how governments work, about trade unions agreeing or agreeing to disagree," he said.

"Behind the cosy words of being on or off the bus is a creeping McCarthyism in government and the civil service - a sinister lack of tolerance and a rejection of democracy at the heart of government."

He claimed ministers wanted to reduce the number of teachers through the workload deal. Analysis showed that of the 20,450 extra teachers the Government said were in schools since 1997, 8,510 did not have qualified teacher status.

The study, commissioned by the NUT from Professor John Howson, an independent teacher supply consultant, showed all but 968 of the remaining 11,940 were needed just to keep pace with rising pupil numbers.

Diary 19; Leader 20

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