Easter and after

21st April 1995 at 01:00
Gillian Shephard has been proved right in her warning that failure to fund the teachers' pay rise would jeopardise the fragile peace with the unions. David Blunkett has demonstrated that he is not in the pocket of the National Union of Teachers. It has been another bad Easter week for teachers, but the Education Secretary and her Opposition shadow emerge with political honours even.

The testing time to come, however, will be more prolonged, messier, and altogether harder to read for all concerned. As we entered the conference season, there was widespread concern about the imminent loss of teachers' jobs and the consequent rise in class sizes. The mood of delegates arriving at Harrogate, Blackpool or Eastbourne was overshadowed by knowledge of the jobs at risk back in school next term. The votes at all three conferences reflected that feeling.

Until the weekend, heads, parents and governors shared those teachers' concerns wholeheartedly. In schools and authorities without reserves to fund the pay bill, governors have tried everything rather then sack teachers or put up class size. Together with other parents, they have demonstrated, lobbied and protested to their MPs, until in response both Prime Minister and Education Secretary have hinted that next year's spending settlement might be more generous.

But that was last week. The political question now is whether industrial action will damage the public consensus, and sabotage the pincer movement on the Treasury. The NUT extremists at vote and riot have provided a massive public relations setback for the teachers' cause, but the more cautious tactics of the other unions do not find much favour either.

If there is one thing that upsets parents more than finding their children in over-large classes, it is having them sent home during the school day. The idea of picking them off by rota to get class sizes down to an arbitrary level has also been greeted with shocked disbelief by parents. Teachers who claim parental support on the issue should remember that agreement is about the problem, not the tactics.

Now that the activists have expressed their feelings, however, it is far from clear what form industrial action can take. Union leaders responding to the strong feelings of members are also acutely aware of the legal and practical pitfalls.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, has had the toughest job and fought valiantly to communicate with his wider membership in the schools above the high-decibel opposition in the conference hall. Though pretty well every vote in the hall went against the union executive's advice, it is the leadership which will have to organise the ballot on a one-day strike, and draft the wording, and it is anyone's guess whether a weary membership that recently voted decisively to end the tests boycott will want to strike this summer. We have already had some local stoppages, of course, after local votes, and there may be others to come.

At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers they think hard about the legal consequences before they take action. There are plenty of questions, mostly tied to the workload issue. Whatever may be said about the damage caused to children's learning by large classes, teachers have to part company with parents here and fight on workload rather than educational grounds. In any case, as Mrs Shephard points out, there is no compelling research on the issue and the leading researcher, Professor Peter Mortimore, has suggested that it is only in the early years of primary school that the difference is likely to be marked, while elsewhere a difference of a few pupils either way might have little effect. And though pupil-teacher ratios have been creeping up for the last two years, they have remained pretty stable over the last decade, and nowhere near as high as they were 20 or 30 years ago.

The statistics mask the uneven reality, though, and class sizes are already unacceptably high by most standards in a high proportion of primary schools and many secondaries. But the effects of the current budget cuts will not be evident until the autumn term, when the key questions to which the union leaders and their lawyers must find an answer will be where any action takes place, against whom, and what the hoped-for outcome might be.

Workload or health and safety issues are only likely to wash for local action over particular classes or schools, and Mrs Shephard has already helpfully listed 15 factors which may affect class size. The NASUWT evidently believes that rotating surplus children from classes designated over-size is a better option than strikes, though parent leader Margaret Morrissey disagrees. As for the target of industrial action, that has to be not the Government which holds the purse strings, but the formal employers, who in practice will be the governing bodies. The same governors who have been the teachers' best allies in the fight to save jobs, and secure a better settlement for next year. There can be few pots of gold left to pull out. Votes for action may have made conference delegates feel better. To put them into effect will bring more management problems to heads and governors and fray their sympathies. There are better, more professional, ways of persuading the Government.

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