The no-cover action looks set to stop. But ministers' relief may prove shortlived if they don't deliver on long hours. Clare Dean reports
LEADERS of the two main classroom unions this week agreed to suspend ballots for industrial action over teacher shortages that have resulted in more than 1,000 pupils so far being sent home.
The move followed a meeting between the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and the National Union of Teachers at the Trades Union Congress earlier this week.
It was expected to be confirmed at a meeting of the NUT's 42-strong executive today.
A straw poll by The TES of 16 members of the executive found that five would not support suspension, five would, while six would not commit themselves.
The NASUWT had agreed to lift the action last month as employers offered talks on overtime pay, flexi-time and extra support staff, but was locked into continuing the joint dispute.
There is no new offer on the table but Doug McAvoy, NUT general secretary, believes he now has sufficient clarification of the offer from employers and the Government to make suspension possible.
Ministers have promised a review of teachers' workload, which will look at its effects on recruitment and retention and the status of the profession, he said.
Employers believe this review may be extended to look at conditions of service for the 488,000 teachers in England and Wales.
Graham Lane, leader of the National Employers Organisation, will be meeting the union leaders informally at their conferences over Easter.
He ruled out a 35-hour working week for teachers - as demanded by the NUT, NASUWT, Asociation of Teachers and Lecturers and the Welsh teaching union UCAC. "You can't expect to have a 35-hour week and a 39-week working year," said Mr Lane.
Since the industrial action began with the first ballots in February, teachers in more than 50 areas of England and Wales have voted to join it by refusing to cover for absent colleagues.
By far the hardest-hit authority appears to have been Nottingham where 1,100 children from four schools had to be sent home at various times. Around 150 pupils at City of Portsmouth school had to stay away over the past month, while all but the pupils taking exams at the North school, Ashford, Kent, have been on a three-day week.
No children have been sent home in Manchester, Leicester or Doncaster and education officials in Middlesbrough and Reading said the votes to take action in these areas had had little or no effect.
The NASUWT and NUT are still involved in another dispute. While the no-cover action is suspended, they will continue their work-to-rule action against escalating bureaucracy. More than 300,000 teachers are refusing to chase absent pupils, write reports of more than 400 words or attend long meetings.
This dispute has not hit the headlines in the same way as the action over staff shortages.
Russ Clarke, of the Secondary Heads Association, said cutting the number of meetings allowed staff to concentrate on teaching.
David Hart, National Association of Head Teachers general secretary, said:
"Limiting hours is fine in principle but teachers will continue to put in the hours they need to do the job whether they will be officially working a 35 hour week or not."