Thursday, March 24, 2005
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has given teachers the go ahead to sue schools if heads refuse to reduce their workload in the next academic year.
Ms Kelly made it clear she sided with teachers in a dispute with heads, who have pulled out of an agreement to give staff 10 per cent of the school day away from the classroom to mark and prepare lessons.
Teachers have threatened strike action if heads fail to implement the agreement. Members of the National Association of Head Teachers say their schools do not have enough money to pay for stand-in staff.
Ms Kelly told the annual conference of the 160,000-strong Association of Teachers and Lecturers` at Torquay, which had threatened strikes, that the deal “will become law from this September [and] NAHT members will have to implement it.”
It was a “smokescreen“ for heads to suggest they did not have enough money as education authorities had been given extra funding to hand on to schools to meet the cost of the deal. She added: “They should be doing it now and shouldn`t be waiting for September.”
Teachers who were denied the time off could take their school to an employment tribunal for breach of contract, she said. But Ms Kelly stopped short of supporting strike action, saying she hoped “it would not come to that”.
Ms Kelly`s comments have opened up the most serious rift with head teachers` leaders since the Blair government came to power in 1997. Up until now, ministers have relied on the support of heads to implement their reforms.
David Hart, the general secretary of the NAHT, said the dispute could lead to a “winter of discontent“ with hundreds of schools facing industrial action.
“It`s all very well the Secretary of State wagging her finger at the nation`s headteachers and telling them they`ve got to do it willy-nilly,” he said. “The Government has to recognise there is a significant question mark over whether they have put enough money into the schools to implement the agreement.
“It is clearly unrealistic to argue that funding is a smokescreen when the government knows full well [that] funding in a number of local education authorities … is extremely tight.”
Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the ATL said: “I think the secretary of state quite rightly identifies the extent to which we are prepared to go to enforce this agreement. If – despite support, extra funding and training – heads continue to refuse to implement the agreement, the course is clear. We will take them to an industrial tribunal and win. I strongly advise those heads who are still saying they can`t implement the agreement to stop whingeing and start planning.”
Meanwhile, Ms Kelly, who was given a cordial welcome at her first teachers` union conferencedefended the plan to set up a network of 200 privately sponsored academies to replace struggling inner-city state secondary schools.
She said in the 17 existing acadmies the proportion of pupils getting five A star and C grade passes at GCSE had risen on average from 16 per cent to 30 per cent. She rejected teachers` demands to halt the programme until an evaluation of the first 17 had been carried out.
She said the academies “have been set up in areas where there has been a history of decline sometimes over generations and where nothing else has worked. The children in these areas need something to happen and need something to happen quickly.”