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Time to leave the trenches

The most important industrial relations issue for schools at present is workload. Ministers, employers and unions alike seemed to have acknowledged jointly that unless life in the classroom can be made more bearable, the premature exodus of teachers will increase and the staff shortages already affecting standards could rise to catastrophic levels.

That consensus could now be jeopardised by the National Union of Teachers'

strike over London weighting and the headteachers' refusal to operate the performance pay procedures. Both have a point, of course. But is this the time or the way to push it?

Meeting the cost of living in and around the capital is an urgent priority for young teachers trying to set up home while having to repay debts incurred to qualify. But the London weighting is only one of the pay advantages teachers in this high-cost area enjoy. They also get retention and recruitment points and more rapid advancement up the pay scale - discretionary payments that schools may find less affordable if the London weighting rises.

The overwhelming vote for strike action suggests strong feelings. But a turnout of just 30 per cent means a small minority of London members are risking the support teachers have won for better working conditions everywhere.

The heads' case also has merits. In selling the performance pay plan ministers made it sound as if teachers would make steady progress up a properly-funded upper spine once the threshold was crossed. Now heads find they are expected to choose between colleagues on not very clear criteria because there is not enough money to reward everyone, and they don't like it. Managers elsewhere might find this perfectly normal but it still goes against the collegiate culture in schools.

It could equally be argued, of course, that it is government intransigence that has led to these disputes. Certainly, they should never have been allowed to deteriorate to this point. There is too much at stake for pupils everywhere. Ministers and unions should get out of their trenches and back round the table to resolve these matters.

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