Launching industrial action in protest against changes to pay, pensions and working conditions was supposed to place teachers in conflict with the government. But it appears that school staff could be facing a row closer to home: teachers who refuse to complete their duties as part of the dispute could be subjected to pay cuts or disciplinary action by heads.
Advice issued by both the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the NAHT heads' union stresses that while the ballots for industrial action afford some protection against dismissal, measures could still be taken where teachers are deemed to be in breach of their contract.
The NUT and the NASUWT insisted that their industrial action, which starts on 26 September, is "pupil, parent and public friendly" and is focused on education secretary Michael Gove.
But ASCL deputy general secretary Malcolm Trobe said some of 25 instructions issued to teachers involved in the action - including those relating to appraisals, lesson observations and attendance at meetings - are "probably not protected".
"There are a whole string of things on that list which, depending how they are interpreted, could potentially be breach of contract," he said. "Some of the actions are against what is in the school teachers' pay and conditions document, and are things teachers would normally be contractually obliged to do."
The ballot results showed strong support for action among those who voted, but attracted a turnout of only 27 per cent of NUT members. While non- strike action will begin next week, the NUT and the NASUWT have so far resisted calls to join a general strike advocated by the Trades Union Congress.
NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby said teachers have a right to follow some of the instructions for action issued by their unions, but that others are "much more troublesome".
"It's not a head's job to decide what should be done, but it's their job to implement any sanctions and give advice to employers," he said. "Many heads will have sympathy with where teachers are coming from, with the basic unhappiness at the sense of the denigration of teachers, but not with the action."
Mr Trobe said that the action leaves school leaders in an awkward position. "It's a difficult balance for our members," he said. "They have a responsibility to run their schools and a responsibility to support their teachers to offer a good quality of education. There is a tension in the system."
He added that the legality of the action would only be conclusively defined in a court hearing or employment tribunal.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said teachers were balloted "precisely because action taken is likely to be a breach of contract".
"Any attempts to discipline teachers as a result of them taking legitimate industrial action will be challenged," she added.
Ms Blower said the action "actually enhances teachers' ability to deliver high-quality teaching and learning for their pupils" by reducing the time they spend on "accountability tasks".
"The dispute is, of course, with the secretary of state and not individual schools," she said. "And we would urge the whole profession to unite behind the call to bring about the necessary constructive negotiations."
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the law means that teachers have to lodge their dispute with their employers, even though their argument is with the government. "Interestingly, breach of contract was never considered an issue by the NAHT when they took industrial action over Sats and pensions," she said. "No pupils or parents will be affected by this action if headteachers are deploying staff reasonably."
NUT and NASUWT members are instructed not to:
- take part in more than three lesson observations per year, lasting a maximum of three hours in total;
- send emails outside their directed working hours;
- complete more than one set of reports for each class per year;
- cooperate with practice inspections;
- submit lesson plans to senior management;
- supervise pupils during lunch breaks.