'Snooping duty' may prompt strikes

21st April 2000 at 01:00
Performance pay will dominate this year's conferences, writes Nicolas Barnard.

FROM Doug McAvoy's point of view, there is one good thing about the Government's attempts to force teachers to "snoop" on colleagues. It should ensure a smooth start to the National Union of Teachers' conference in Harrogate this weekend, where performance-related pay will dominate debate and where the leadership will be supporting strike action.

"I don't expect much difference between the platform and the floor," the NUT's general secretary said. "I'm grateful to the Government for presenting the opportunity for that kind of debate."

Traditionally, the conference is a balancing act between the union's Left and the moderate majority on the executive. The leadership believes it better represents the rank-and-file member who isn't prepared to give up Easter for the union and wouldn't go along with the hard line that the conference might otherwise vote for.

This year, Mr McAvoy believes conference will be in tune for once with the membership, which has now topped 201,000 - thanks largely to the Government's determination to drive through performance-related pay.

Threats of action include local strikes to protect members from being forced by their heads to assess colleagues for the new pay threshold. This is the "snooping" duty that ministers put into teachers' contracts at the last minute prompting high-court acton by the NUT. There will also be calls for a national one-day strike.

"There is tremendous resentment and anger out there. From schools and associations that you wouldn't expect, there are calls for a one-day strike," said Mr McAvoy. "It would be a public demonstration showing how the Government has alienated the profession. I don't think ministers would shrug it off.

"People think of the NUT as being strike-happy but there's no history of strike action in this profession."

Despite the resentment over performance-related pay, he believes his members are misguided in their wider disillusionment with the Government and that Estelle Morris, the education minister, who will address delegates on Saturday, deserves a fair hearing.

"In some respects, the perception teachers have of the Government is not a fair one. One reason the Government is not more popular with teachers is the lack of trust," he said.

Teachers have rumbled the spin doctors, he says. Announcements of cash no longer win them over. Even the pound;1billion in Gordon Brown's Budget - entirely new money - produced a cynical sigh.

Critics on the Left argue that with application forms for threshold pay already in schools, the union has left the threat of industrial action too late.

Mr McAvoy said: "Had the union embarked on direct industrial action earlier, it would not have changed the attitude of the Government."

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