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Trainees may sue over boycott

PGCE students feel let down by their tutors and threaten to take universities to court over industrial action

The first Allanah Prosten knew about industrial action by lecturers was when her tutor failed to turn up to last term's formal observation.

Ms Prosten, a 22-year-old primary PGCE student at Manchester Metropolitan university, said: "It put me in a really bad position, because the headteacher had to do it. I rang the university and they said the lecturers were on strike and working to rule. Nobody told us."

She is one of the thousands of trainee teachers affected by the boycott of coursework marking and assessment. The industrial action was started in February by lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers (AUT), which yesterday merged to form the University and College Union.

Luckily Ms Prosten has already been offered a job by a primary school in west London. But she risks being paid as an unqualified teacher, earning at least a quarter less than she had expected.

Several students said they were now considering legal action against their universities to win compensation for lost earnings.

Nicholas Russell, who is completing a PGCE at Nottingham university, said:

"Many students would have been in favour of the industrial action. But because of the clandestine way it has happened, many of us have contacted legal advisers regarding potentially suing the university for loss of earnings and breach of contract."

It is not just students at the end of teacher-training courses who are angry. The boycott is also making it difficult for some students who are completing their first degrees to confirm whether they can start postgraduate teaching courses in September.

Edgehill university in Lancashire, the largest trainer of secondary teachers in Britain, said that its teaching courses had not been affected by the boycotts.

But Dr John Cater, vice-chancellor, said it might need to look at new students on a case-by-case basis, if they did not have a degree grade, to see if they had met the entry requirements for its PGCE courses.

Alan Verth had hoped to begin a PGCE at Sunderland university this September after completing an English and film degree at the same institution, but has not received confirmation he will graduate in time.

Mr Verth is now speaking to his solicitor about legal action. "I'm 34, I've got a young daughter and a mortgage, and I left my previous career to become a teacher," he said. "I can't afford to wait around - I need this to be fixed quickly."

Teachers' unions are optimistic the dispute will be solved without long-term problems for trainee teachers.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "We have been contacted by some of our student members who are concerned about the effect on them, but we are hopeful that there will be a settlement soon."

The General Teaching Council for England is expected to put out advice for trainee teachers and for institutions next week.

It has been drawing up contingency plans with organisations including the Training and Development Agency for Schools, so it can speed up the award of qualified teacher status.

But the Department for Education and Skills has not confirmed whether it will encourage schools to employ unqualified teachers and give them back pay later. Department sources say it is keen to avoid giving any specific groups of students special treatment.

Sue Kirkham, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said she believed schools would be unaffected as they normally offered jobs to students many months before they had completed their teaching courses.

"You can get a fair idea of how a student is doing from their work and their school placements," she said. "As local authorities are the employer it will be their decision if schools should take on unqualified teachers."

Nottingham university said it did not anticipate its students would have major problems starting teaching jobs, even if there was a delay providing them with marks. "All of them will have written references from us reflecting the work they have done during the course, including observations of teaching practice," a spokesman said.

Back in Manchester, Allanah Prosten said that the breakdown in relations between lecturers and students had been one of the worst aspects of the dispute. "At the start of the course the lecturers were handing out their home phone numbers and saying how much they wanted us to become teachers," she said. "Now they're going to stop us from qualifying."

Why have higher education lecturers been taking industrial action?

They are seeking a pay rise of 23 per cent over three years. Their employers were only offering 13.1 per cent this week.

Why a boycott of assessment and exam marking?

The lecturers' union Natfhe said a marking boycott was the most effective form of action short of a strike and "does little irreversible damage".

What are teachers' unions doing about their student members?

Not much. They are members of the Trades Union Congress, so are duty bound to support their fellow unions' action.

Can schools employ unqualified teachers?

Yes. Many already use teachers from abroad, who lack UK qualifications, to take whole classes.

How much pay do you get as an unqualified teacher?

While most NQTs will get a minimum starting salary of pound;19,641, an unqualified teacher would expect pound;14,391. Unqualified teachers in inner London will get pound;18,099 instead of pound;23,577.

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