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Union digs its heels in over assistants

As the Government tries to avert more strikes, the NUT criticises its plans to reduce teachers' workload. Jon Slater and Warwick Mansell report.

GROWING tensions between the largest teaching union and the Government over workload surfaced this week at the start of an eight-week rush to avert the prospect of renewed industrial action.

Leaders of the National Union of Teachers are unhappy with plans, announced last month, to give teachers the equivalent of half a day per week away from lessons for marking and preparation.

In its response to the School Teachers' Review Body, the NUT called for all teachers to be guaranteed one day a week non-contact time and said that it should be introduced before the 2006 date suggested by the Government.

It is the latest sign that the talks have reached deadlock, with the NUT's refusal to drop its opposition to teaching assistants taking classes seen as a key stumbling block.

Hopes are now pinned on a meeting on December 11 when schools minister David Miliband will set out how much money the Government is prepared to spend on reducing the burden on teachers and recruiting and training support staff. Ministers have made it clear that they see increased use of support staff as the only way to cut workload.

Both the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers have signalled their willingness to accept assistants taking classes in some circumstances if it will lead to a real improvement in the working conditions of their members.

But the NUT argues that it would undermine the profession and that most teachers oppose the move - and there are signs that its stance is hardening.

The union took out a full-page advertisement in last week's TES to attack Mr Miliband over teaching assistants and to argue that the Government's proposals to cut workload do not go far enough. Mr Miliband has written to The TES to complain about inaccuracies in the advertisement.

Industrial action over workload was suspended in April 2001 to allow talks to take place. But the union says that the action's aims have still not been achieved. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, said that little progress had been made.

The union remains "tied in" to the current talks until the end of January when the Government is due to finalise its proposals on remodelling the profession. But it would then sit down and review the situation with the other unions, Mr McAvoy said.

Ministers' anxiety over their inability to reach agreement with the NUT will be revealed next month when for the first time Tony Blair will write in the union's magazine.

In a concilliatory article, the Prime Minister will attempt to convince members that any deal over non-contact time relies on greater use of support staff.

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