Unity is long overdue

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Teacher unions have much to celebrate this Easter. Theresa May, the shadow education secretary, called them "unreconstructed". Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the education select committee, labelled them "ghastly". But, give or take a heckle or two, the 3,000 teachers who gave up their holiday to put the case for the profession have done so more effectively than for many a year. That is partly because the activists have found a genuine grievance every classroom teacher identifies with - overwork. But the profession's plight has also led to a new-found unity. Four classroom unions in England and Wales backed a motion for industrial action over a 35-hour week unless a Government review of pay and conditions delivers results.

The united front is long overdue. Many of the divisions between the unions exist for reasons, sometimes disreputable, that have disappeared into the mists of time. The National Association of Schoolmasters broke away from the National Union of Teachers to protect male career teachers from the threat of equal pay for women. The Association of Teachers an Lecturers was originally for nobs.

This month's co-operation has some negative roots: unions believe they need to fight for their lives against the new General Teaching Council. But they are also, rightly, grasping an opportunity. As teacher shortages grow, Ministers are casting about for ways to safeguard the rise in standards achieved since they came to power. The Prime Minister last week made an astonishing commitment. He set the Government a goal of matching spending on independent schools in state schools, at an estimated cost of pound;13 billion. Earlier this year, a report from Liverpool University's Professor Alan Smithers showed that good independent schools have less difficulty recruiting teachers because they treat them better.

Teacher unions have shown in the past how effective they can be if they act together. In 1993 a boycott helped to demolish a byzantine system of national tests and assessment, and ended John Patten's ministerial career. If it holds, unity will surely pay dividends as teachers pursue a dialogue with ministers in the coming months.

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