United cold front for Labour;Union Conference;NASUWT;National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers

17th April 1998 at 01:00
A string of votes for action signalled an end to post-election euphoria. Nicolas Barnard reports.

Snow and drizzle - it could only be an Easter seaside holiday in England. The chill was not confined to Scarborough sea front.

"New Labour - no change" is the frustrated message from a disappointed and cynical conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, a year after the election.

The Spa Centre may have been a Trot-free zone compared to Blackpool's Winter Gardens and NASUWT delegates are a cheery bunch. But old sores like workload and new ones such as education action zones prompted the same dismay at a Labour government.

And members signalled their dissatisfaction, with a string of votes for action.

The anti-red tape campaign will go ahead, and action is threatened on zones if there is any change to teachers' pay and conditions. NASUWT will also campaign for changes to halt the growth in contract working and for a watchdog to oversee the Office for Standards in Education.

Union president Margaret Morgan set the tone in her opening address. Labour's election had prompted a "new mood" after 18 Tory years. "But for many teachers in the classroom, the change was seamless," she said.

And general secretary Nigel de Gruchy told journalists: "New Labour has yet to deliver. We've heard lots of good intentions but at the moment very little of anything has trickled down to make teachers feel better on the ground."

Two things in particular have upset delegates - action zones and naming and shaming. On top of that, Labour's hyperactive initiatives have, they say, created a storm of paperwork. The Office for Standards in Education inevitably remains a source of ire.

The anti-red tape campaign, Let Teachers Teach, will see them follow unilaterally the recommendations of the Government's own bureaucracy working party.

But they threw the Government a lifeline, saying it could still send a circular to schools implementing the working party's conclusions. The Local Government Association is holding meetings with all the main unions to seek a way ahead.

NASUWT opposition to action zones matched the National Union of Teachers' at Blackpool. Like the NUT it is limiting action to pay and conditions issues, with strikes not ruled out. Executive member Tony Hardman called the zones "probably the most dangerous development we've had to discuss at conference in a long time."

Teachers have been told zone staff would almost certainly gain from sweeping away the national teachers' contract, to recognise evening and weekend courses they might run. But teachers are not convinced they want to work longer - even for more cash.

Mr Hardman said: "We've got nothing left to give. Yet they believe that by making us work longer we'll work better."

Private-sector involvement in zones arouses suspicions at a conference already concerned about the spread of teacher supply agencies. Members said the rise in short-term contracts had left many teachers without job security and on poor pay.

One delegate said he was paid just pound;68 gross a day by an agency which charged the school pound;120. Newly-qualified teachers are most vulnerable - an NASUWT survey in Bedfordshire found only one in eight got a permanent job.

Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett, on the second leg of his conference tour, announced pound;500 million to repair and rebuild 4,000 crumbling schools - the second tranche of the pound;1.3 billion in New Deal cash announced last year, plus pound;200m from public-private partnerships and pound;50m from LEAs and schools.

The money includes five "new types" of partnership deals which will see groups of schools repaired in Cornwall, Tower Hamlets, Stoke, Kirklees and Sheffield.

Even that failed to impress Mr de Gruchy, who said: "That's fine, but I'd prefer pound;500m for crumbling teachers."

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