Threat of industrial action grows as teachers unions' fight bureaucracy

In April 1998, two trade unions representing teachers reported the results of ballots indicating that their members are willing to take industrial action in protest against workloads and "bureaucracy" in the UK's schools.

On 6 April 1998, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) published the results of a ballot which showed that 93% of its members who voted were prepared to take industrial action, short of a strike, over the issue of too much "red tape" and paperwork in schools. Doug McAvoy, the NUT general secretary said that "this was an overwhelming vote in favour of reducing the workload on teachers resulting from bureaucratic activities." However, the turnout in the ballot was low at only 28%.

A second teaching union joined the debate when the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) announced overwhelming support for industrial action in a ballot with a 40% turnout. The NUT and NASUWT together represent more than 350,000 members. A third and smaller union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), argued that the other two unions were dragging teachers into a misguided dispute and that, because of low ballot turnouts, they were out of touch with their membership. However, its general secretary conceded that the ATL would also be prepared to take industrial action as a last resort.

The unions were keen to dispel any ideas that industrial action would disrupt lesson time. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT said that "this is not confrontation with the Government. It is constructive, letting teachers get on with the job." Teachers feel that many of their administrative tasks could be done by other staff, leaving them to concentrate on the job of teaching,

Although the current Labour Government promised to cut the burden of paperwork on teachers when it took office in 1997 and established a working group on the issue, it wants each school to set targets for pupil attainment. A refusal by teachers to cooperate with this initiative could jeopardise the Government's drive to improve standards and meet national targets it has set for the number of pupils reaching the expected standards for their age in English and mathematics. The trade unions believe that the Government has been too slow in responding to their problems.

Matters developed further at the the NUT's conference in April, when a motion demanding a campaign of strikes and disruptive action over teachers' general employment conditions was passed on a card vote by delegates. This means that the union will now have to ballot the membership on such a campaign. The conference motion also set out an 11-point "contract" covering minimum standards of employment.

On 16 April, in a speech to the NASUWT conference, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, announced his intention of meeting the union officials who sit on the Government's working group on reducing bureaucracy, with the aim of agreeing a plan to cut red tape. The unions welcomed the announcement but said that it might be too late to prevent the first round of industrial action, which was due to begin at the end of April.

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