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Waiting to be led to battle

Delegates at the NUT's Harrogate conference were almost unanimous in their support for action against the workload agreement. William Stewart and Helen Ward report

The largest teaching union enjoyed an unusually calm Easter as its impending leadership contest preoccupied activists, smoothing over the divisions of its traditionally fractious conference.

National Union of Teachers' delegates still made their ritual threats of industrial action on a range of issues including pay, funding and the school workforce agreement.

But the majority of the debates at the Harrogate conference were strangely muted as factions within the union put their usual hostilities on hold as their preferred candidates jockeyed for position in the race to succeed Doug McAvoy as general secretary.

Outside forces also played a part as the union, snubbed by Education Secretary Charles Clarke for a second year running, united in opposition to the school workforce agreement it had refused to sign. The teaching unions that did sign, and went on to agree a new deal on the upper pay scale, were condemned by conference as "collaborators".

A package of industrial action against the deal, including strikes where unqualified staff taught whole classes, a refusal to prepare work for when such staff were taking lessons; class size action; refusing to cover for absent colleagues and the threat of national half day strikes was backed by an overwhelming` majority of delegates.

Liam Conway, from central Nottinghamshire, said the idea that work-life balance had improved since its September introduction was a joke.

The nightmare of the "relentless pace of attack" on teachers under New Labour, had even made him reminisce about life under the Conservatives.

"The Government has a very a clear agenda for schools," he said. "Get rid of as many teachers as possible."

They would be replaced by classroom assistants delivering lessons taken from the Internet.

"What they want is education for androids delivered by androids," he said.

Delegates also voted for the planning, preparation and assessment time guaranteed under the agreement to be doubled to 20 per cent of the school week and for a 35-hour maximum teachers' working week with a maximum 22.5 hours' teaching time.

Simon Horne, from Barnet, was the only speaker to oppose action against the workforce agreement, arguing that it would do nothing to tackle the NUT's isolation and condemning activists' "empty rhetoric" as being out of touch with members in schools.

Within an hour of the vote being passed doubts were already being raised as to how much of the action would ever actually take place.

The NUT's only previous attempt to use industrial action to oppose the agreement ended in failure earlier this year when only 37 per cent of members at Radclyffe school, Oldham, voted against the school's use of cover supervisors. Then 43 per cent abstained and 20 per cent opposed the action.

Speaking at a fringe meeting, Tony Harrison, the NUT's representative at Radclyffe, said the use of cover supervisors had proved "very attractive" to members of staff.

At the National Association of Schoolteachers Union of Women Teachers conference in Llandudno, delegates' only criticism of the workforce agreement was that schools were failing to implement it quickly enough.

Stephen Hillier, director of the Department for Education and Skills school workforce unit, was applauded when he said it was a waste of public money for teachers to cover others' lessons.

Members of the NUT backed a motion calling for professional unity, but recognised the difficulties the workforce agreement and the deal on performance pay signed by other major teaching unions had caused.

Ray Sirotkin, from Lambeth, south London, said: "We cannot unite with the other unions when they betray teachers."

He said united opposition to the agreement was building at a local level.

Lambeth representatives of the NASUWT, Unison, GMB, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and National Association of Head Teachers - all national signatories to the agreement - had signed a statement saying that only qualified teachers should take whole classes.

Diary 15

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