Strike will test public's patience

4th April 2008 at 01:00
One-day industrial action criticised by parents' groups l Teachers take hope from past pay battles

When teachers walk out of their classrooms this month, it will test the public's tolerance of mass strike action as never before.

Schools' last national pay strike ended in 1987 - the year in which Margaret Thatcher was re-elected with a convincing victory, and pit closures and printers' strikes were still fresh in the collective memory.

Bill Hibberd, director of the lobby group Parents' Organisation, said parents would be less supportive now than they were 21 years ago because they no longer believed teachers were providing such high-quality education.

"The vast majority of parents earn less than teachers, don't get as much time off as teachers, and will be seriously inconvenienced, so they won't sympathise," he said.

These cultural changes would have been at the forefront of the minds of the NUT's national executive members when they announced the one-day strike to be held on April 24.

Just over 48,000 of its members voted in support of the strike; just under 16,000 said "no". The majority - 135,000 - did not return their ballot forms.

The executive members knew it was a gamble, with only one in four of their members voting for it and no support from other teaching unions. The TES poll published today suggests 27 per cent of NUT members will defy the call to strike.

But the University and College Union is balloting to strike on the same day, and more than 100,000 members of the militant Public and Commercial Services union - including the coastguards - may also walk out.

Supporters of the walkout will have been encouraged by the impact of a school support-staff strike in Birmingham in February, which forced the closure of 168 schools.

However, councils and other school employers could face legal action from parents if schools send their children home for the day, according to some local government sources.

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "Parents have a sympathy for teachers, as they do for other public sector workers like doctors and nurses.

"They should have a pay rise in line with inflation. But when they go on strike, they lose a certain amount of parental trust."

Richard Blant, a history teacher at a Peterborough comprehensive, would have preferred less disruptive action such as working to rule. "I went to school in the 1980s and remember all the strikes then," he said. "I wouldn't wish that on children now."

But the Government's pay deal was "an insult", he said, so he has voted to strike.

Kevin Courtney, NUT secretary for the London borough of Camden, said strike action had been effective in the pay disputes of the 1980s, effective in 2002 in the battle over the London allowance, and would be effective again now. "This strike and these rallies will be a message to government that they can't take advantage of us any longer," he said.

Leading article, page 28


Steve Sinnott, NUT general secretary:

"The strike could be called off if the Government meets our demands. I'm always waiting for that call from a minister - my phone will never be placed on silent."

Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary:

"The majority of members recognise that, compared with other public sector workers, they have fared relatively well. There was no widespread appetite among teachers for industrial action on pay."

Nigel Utton, headteacher, St Lawrence CofE Primary School in Alton, Hampshire:

"We're trying to have a world-class education system in England, yet we're not paying world-class wages. I will be out on strike that day, some of my staff will be, and I don't think the school will be able to open."

Ed Balls, Children, Schools and Families Secretary (his spokesperson):

"A strike will only serve to disrupt children's learning, inconvenience parents, and place a burden on fellow teachers."

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