Strikes threaten reform

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Unions lose patience as new year of initiatives looks set to drain beleaguered budgets.The most critical school year for educational reform this decade could be hijacked by teacher strikes and the boycott of major initiatives, we can reveal this week.

As TES Cymru went to press, teaching unions and the Welsh Local Government Association issued an unprecedented joint statement warning of falling education standards and job losses in 2008-9.

The statement said that if the Assembly government did not come up with more funding for its ambitious raft of reforms next year, including the national roll-out of the foundation phase for three to five-year-olds, a lack of money and resources would have "a major impact on the ability of schools and local education authorities to continue to raise standards".

The explosive words came after unions and WLGA representatives held crisis talks with education minister Jane Hutt.

The minister, who is facing the biggest test since she took over the portfolio in August, has spent the week trying to pacify unions and avoid strike action.

But her press office this week maintained that extra money provided by the government over the next three years was enough to finance the huge curriculum change about to be unleashed on schools.

The NASUWT Cymru is the only education union on the brink of balloting members over industrial action if more cash is not made available. However, the depth of feeling is so high generally that an all-out strike cannot be ruled out.

The union's Vale of Glamorgan secretary and national executive member Tim Cox said that the latest capital and revenue settlement for local authorities was effectively a budget cut.

Announced by Assembly local government minister Brian Gibbons last week, it means the aggregate external finance of Welsh local authorities will go up by only 2.3 per cent on average.

But an angry Mr Cox said: "If this is a realistic settlement then teachers will be sacked and more schools will be closed.

"Schools in England can expect a 5.6 per cent increase in education spending over the next year but local authorities in Wales will only get a rise of 2.2 per cent on average.

"This is a disgrace. The only way we will have to protect ourselves, the service and our pupil's educational future is to threaten strike action across Wales."

Next September, Wales faces the challenge of the national roll-out of the foundation phase for all three to five-year-olds, the 14-19 Learning Pathways, changes to key stage 2 and 3 assessments, the introduction of the new skills-based curriculum and the Welsh baccalaureate.

The huge changes will not only place a drain on school budgets but also on the amount of extra time needed for training and workload demands.

An Assembly government spokesperson said an extra pound;371 million over the next three years would give children a flying start and provide lifelong learning and skills for all.

"The settlement will allow the government to implement the commitments made in One Wales. Our programme establishes a right to learn and we want to ensure the very best start for our children and young people. We very much hope the NASUWT will urge its members to work with us to implement these exciting initiatives," said a spokesperson.

But earlier this month Councillor John Davies, the WLGA's spokesperson for lifelong learning, called the draft budget proposals announced by the government "bad news for schools".

Under the its spending plans, an extra pound;15 million has been announced for the roll-out of the play-led foundation phase next year. But Mr Cox said it amounted to just pound;10-12,000 for each primary school. NUT Cymru secretary David Evans said the extra cash allocated for the FP would not even cover additional staffing costs.

Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said the union would be presenting a full report on shortfalls in funding to the government in the next couple of weeks.

Brian Lightman, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Some of these Welsh initiatives, like the 14-19 Learning Pathways, could be in jeopardy if more funding is not found.

Gruff Hughes, secretary of Welsh-medium teachers' union UCAC, said: "There is not enough funding to keep the status quo, let alone to expand with new schemes."

The NASUWT Cymru motion to ballot members was made at its national conference in Cardiff on Saturday. Proposed by the union's Vale of Glamorgan association, it says it will not be possible to implement the five key initiatives under present spending plans and it has "potentially serious consequences for education, school budgets and teachers' pay and conditions".

A ballot of members over strike action is not planned until next February or March.

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